Elephant in the room: Why regional leaders want ivory trade ban lifted, and why it won’t be easy

Africa Zimbabwe elephants
Cuddly or destructive: national parks sells hunting permits to fund conservation (pic: EFE)

KASANE, BOTSWANA – For locals, elephants are destructive giants that destroy crops and kill people. But for visiting tourists and animal lovers, elephants are cuddly attractions that should be allowed to roam free.   

Leaders of Southern Africa, home to the bulk of Africa’s elephants, are meeting here trying to balance that equation.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned ivory trade in 1989 to curb poaching. Now the governments of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe are at the Botswana resort town of Kasane to push for the ban to be lifted, so that they can be allowed to sell ivory stockpiles to fund conservation and to be able to manage growing elephant herds.

Mokweetsi Masisi, the president of Botswana, said the summit would seek “a common vision for the management of our elephants.”

Southern Africa is home to the largest number of elephants, numbering almost 300,000. The Kavango-Zambezi Trans-Frontier Conservation Area, astride the five countries, holds 75% of the elephants. Zimbabwe has an elephant population of over 85 000 against a carrying capacity of 55 000.

Getting the world to lift the ivory ban will not be easy, given the strong feelings that hunting evokes in the West. While locals face deadly conflict with elephants, any talk of culling elephants or trading in their tusks is passionately opposed elsewhere in the world.  

According to Masisi, efforts to reduce the elephant herd are “subjected to constant media glare, with much of this coverage ignoring the plight of rural communities who bear the brunt of living with elephants.”

And according to President Emmerson Mnangagwa, also speaking in Kasane, CITES’ “one size fits all approach of banning everything, disregarding efforts by African governments, is neither sustainable nor desirable”.

Europeans must be “humble and come learn from us how we are sustainably managing our wildlife”, Namibian president Hage Geingob told delegates at the summit.  

According to a handout to delegates at the summit, elephant populations are growing, spilling out of protected areas.

“This poses additional challenges for wildlife authorities and wildlife managers, as levels of human-elephant conflict continue to escalate especially where human and agricultural expansion moves into new areas already occupied by the animals,” the summit said.

In Zimbabwe, more than 200 people have been killed in human-wildlife conflict and nearly 40% of these are human-elephant conflict, according to Tinashe Farawo, spokesman for the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority (Zimparks). More than 7 000 hectares of crops have been destroyed and thousands of livestock killed over the last five years, he said.

Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia say the sale of stockpiles would raise money for wildlife management.

Zimbabwe, for instance, has a stockpile worth US$100 million. However, it costs Zimparks US$13 million a year to secure the 40 tonne stock.

“Right now I have ivory that is worth more than US$100 million and if we get that money as Zimparks and plough it back into conservation and into community projects, no one would be able to go into those areas to poach,” Zimparks director Fulton Mangwanya said recently.

Critics fear that allowing the sale of ivory stocks will fuel demand and increase poaching. There are also fears that the earnings from the sales could be abused by corrupt authorities, many of whom have been previously accused of involvement with poaching syndicates and of theft of ivory from stockpiles.