Dispatch

The Brewing Battle Over Africa’s Ivory

Many countries in southern Africa want to unload big stockpiles of ivory to fund conservation, even though the trade is banned.

Elephants graze at Kimana Sanctuary.
Elephants graze at Kimana Sanctuary in Kimana, Kenya, on March 2, 2021. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images
By , a researcher and journalist based in Southern Africa.

HWANGE, Zimbabwe—Fourteen years since the last legal commercial sale of ivory, southern African countries are lobbying to sell tons of tusks held in storage. As these states submit proposals to the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) summit in November, the fate of African ivory is caught in the crosshairs of animal rights groups and states burdened with costly stockpiles.

Southern Africa’s states—those countries in Africa with elephant populations—had hoped to present a united African position on the issue of the ivory trade at CITES, which will take place at the U.N. climate change conference in Panama. Although the United Kingdom has just implemented the Ivory Act, punishing illegal or undocumented sales with a potential fine of up to 250,000 pounds (or around $314,000), the African continent is deeply divided over whether all elephants should be classified in CITES Appendix I, which lists endangered species and plants. Currently, some African and Asian elephants are listed in Appendix I, which means commercial trade is strictly prohibited. Under Appendix II, the trade of certain species is allowed in exceptional circumstances, and pachyderms from Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe currently fall under this category because of their large population. Appendix II permits restricted international trade in animals that are not necessarily threatened with extinction.

The African Elephant Coalition (AEC), made up of at least 30 East and West African countries that oppose ivory sales, wants all tusker trade stopped, whereas Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, where most of the world’s elephants roam, advocate for the right to sell their ivory.

HWANGE, Zimbabwe—Fourteen years since the last legal commercial sale of ivory, southern African countries are lobbying to sell tons of tusks held in storage. As these states submit proposals to the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) summit in November, the fate of African ivory is caught in the crosshairs of animal rights groups and states burdened with costly stockpiles.

Southern Africa’s states—those countries in Africa with elephant populations—had hoped to present a united African position on the issue of the ivory trade at CITES, which will take place at the U.N. climate change conference in Panama. Although the United Kingdom has just implemented the Ivory Act, punishing illegal or undocumented sales with a potential fine of up to 250,000 pounds (or around $314,000), the African continent is deeply divided over whether all elephants should be classified in CITES Appendix I, which lists endangered species and plants. Currently, some African and Asian elephants are listed in Appendix I, which means commercial trade is strictly prohibited. Under Appendix II, the trade of certain species is allowed in exceptional circumstances, and pachyderms from Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe currently fall under this category because of their large population. Appendix II permits restricted international trade in animals that are not necessarily threatened with extinction.

The African Elephant Coalition (AEC), made up of at least 30 East and West African countries that oppose ivory sales, wants all tusker trade stopped, whereas Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, where most of the world’s elephants roam, advocate for the right to sell their ivory.

The debate comes against a backdrop of concerted conservation efforts meant to protect vulnerable elephant populations, which still appear to be declining over the last decade. But conservation programs are costly, especially for countries like Zimbabwe, which is battling triple-digit inflation, and Namibia, plagued by a contracting economy due to persistent drought and the COVID-19 pandemic. Southern African countries are seeking support for a one-off sale of stockpiles accumulated through natural elephant deaths and seizures from poachers.

Since 1989, the CITES ban on international commercial ivory trade requires member states to keep stockpiles as a way of monitoring trade. However, some poorer states are growing weary of CITES’s requirement. Fulton Mangwanya, director-general of Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), believes auctioning tusks will flood the market, which will in turn reduce poaching. “Demand is high, and it’s causing these illegal activities,” he said. “They should allow the legal sale of ivory so that we sell and saturate the market so that no one goes poaching.”

A Zimbabwe National Parks' armed guard walks through piles of elephant ivory stored inside a strong during a tour of the stockpile by European Union envoys, in Harare, Zimbabwe on May 16.

A Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority armed guard walks through piles of elephant ivory during a tour of the stockpile by European Union envoys in Harare, Zimbabwe, on May 16. JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP via Getty Images

Selling will also help reduce the costs of managing a stockpile that requires $160,000 annually for security monitoring and other running expenses, Mangwanya said.

However, Kenya, one of the AEC countries advocating against the African Elephant Coalition, habitually burns its stockpiles and argues that legal trade in ivory, even a one-off auction, would lead to increased poaching. John Scanlon, CEO of the Elephant Protection Initiative, expressed the same fears.

“Once you have a market in ivory, you have a high value placed on ivory. It does stimulate poaching,” he said.

In 2008, CITES permitted four African countries—Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—to dispose of their growing ivory stocks, but studies by conservationists show that since the one-time sale, seizures of smuggled ivory leaving African countries increased from 4.8 to 8.4 seizures per country per year between 2009 to 2013. Research suggests in the years prior to the sale, between 2003 to 2007, there was not much fluctuation in seizures. The Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants index, a resource containing collated field data from conservationists and rangers, shows there was “a clear discontinuous increase” in elephant carcasses that died by unnatural causes post-2008. This is attributed to poaching to supply a waiting market.

The spike in seizures corresponds with increased poaching from 2006, mainly in Tanzania, where around 60 percent of the pachyderm population was slaughtered in just five years. Researchers suggest the once-off sale triggered an increased demand in Asia where white gold is a status symbol used in furniture and jewelry as well as in traditional medicine. China, once the world’s largest consumer of ivory, still has a robust economy and a growing presence in Africa, where poaching syndicates that decimated herds of elephants in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe were linked to Asian kingpins and queens. The southern range states hope to legitimately sell to Asian markets, but many markets in China have closed due to a ban on elephant trade in 2017. However, domestic trade in Japan is still active and lucrative.

Zimbabwe’s stockpile includes 130 tons of ivory and 6 to 7 tons of rhinoceros horn, the product of poaching or natural causes, estimated to be worth as much as $600 million. However, environmental accountants strongly doubt the accuracy of this figure. Research by the Wildlife Justice Commission showed that in 2017, raw African ivory sold for $208 a kilogram, but in 2020, that figure plummeted to $92. There is also historical precedent for ivory-selling at much lower prices at official auctions than on the black market because at the last CITES-approved sale in 2008, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe sold a collective 102 tons for just $157 a kilogram, far lower than the going black market average of $750, according to research by Save the Elephants. Nonetheless, the more than $15 million earned by SADC countries went toward elephant conservation as required by CITES sale regulations.

While ZimParks runs its operations from the revenue it generates from hunting and tourism, the country’s spiraling economic crisis makes it increasingly difficult for the organization to finance itself. Salaries often fall behind schedule and game rangers lack adequate anti-poaching gear and vehicles. Further, Zimbabwe has a shortage of rangers, and Mangwanya feels employing an additional 1,200 staff would meet the country’s needs. Due to lack of financing, the department has had to engage donors, such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, to support the skeletal staff that looks after the country’s game reserves. Although poaching has fallen significantly at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s premier wildlife sanctuary with a population of more than 45,000 elephants, three times it’s carrying capacity, much more needs to be done.

Wary of possible criticism from the West, Zimbabwe invited envoys from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States to view vaults crammed with rhino horns and tusks in May in Harare, the country’s capital. Mangwanya said selling to the market isn’t the only option; he’s willing to offer the ivory stock to any takers for a price.

“We aren’t saying we only want to sell the tusks, even if [the European Union] came and said they want to give us money and they’ll take them to destroy them or store them elsewhere. We don’t care.”

“What we want is to unlock the value of our ivory so the people who are being killed or injured by elephants or having their fields trampled by elephants will benefit,” he added.

At least 60 people have been killed during incursions with wild animals in Zimbabwe this year, with hippos and crocodiles the main predators against humans. Unlike other southern range states, the country doesn’t have a compensation policy nor is there funding for preventative mechanisms, such as chili pepper guns, to repel intruding pachyderms.

In Namibia, where funding for game reserves comes from the government and international donors, the country sits on a 69-ton stockpile. According to Teofilus Nghitila, Namibia’s executive director-general of wildlife and national parks, ivory must be sold. “We are pushing for the sale of wildlife and wildlife-related products so that we generate more revenues and we reinvest that revenue into conservation,” Nghitila said. Revenue generated through wildlife tourism goes into the desert nation’s game product trust fund, which finances the setup and maintenance of wildlife infrastructure within the parks, including watering holes, fencing, capture and translocation of wild animals, and financing human wildlife conflict programs.

When elephants, buffaloes, or hippos destroy crops, farmers in countries like Namibia and Botswana are compensated for their losses, and in cases of death, a state-backed scheme contributes to burial costs. Since the setup of communal conservancy in the 1990s, communities have conditional rights to wildlife within specific areas, and they benefit from hunting tourism, photographic safaris, and the sale of indigenous plants. Although some Indigenous communities have benefitted from wildlife trade and tourism, the bulk of conservation funding is drawn from the public treasury. Prior to COVID-19, Namibia needed at least $60 million to run various biodiversity programs, including wildlife, but the annual budget has been slashed to $33.5 million due to the global tourism slump caused by the pandemic. This is why Nghitila believes ivory sales can finance some of the costs of wildlife conservation.

“I don’t see us range states depending on donors. It’s not sustainable,” he said. “We should have a long-term mechanism to sustain our conservation at a national level and also be able to support communities directly involved in wildlife management.”

Veterinarians and park rangers attend to a sedated elephant outside Amboseli National Park in Kenya on Nov. 2, 2016. The International Fund for Animal Welfare collared two young male elephants from the Amboseli region to better understand their migration routes and how they’ve been impacted by increasing populations.

Veterinarians and park rangers attend to a sedated elephant outside Amboseli National Park in Kenya on Nov. 2, 2016. The International Fund for Animal Welfare collared two young male elephants from the Amboseli region to better understand their migration routes and how they’ve been impacted by increasing populations. CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images

Nghitila sees the ivory restriction as an unjust ban that is “extremely unfair” because “if it was a product in America, in Europe, they would not have imposed this restriction.” Despite the introduction of a new British law prohibiting trade in elephant teeth and tusks, Namibia is pushing for the trade of wildlife commodities to see greater benefits going toward communities living in game areas.

Beyond the arguments around the ethics of an auction, renewing international trade in ivory would necessitate safeguarding against the contamination of legal ivory with illicit ivory, and these are yet to be adequately developed by the lobbying range states.

Charan Saunders, an environmental accountant from South Africa, believes “it would be impossible to find an open market as commercial sales of ivory are banned by CITES” and both purchaser and seller nations risk being sanctioned.

Instead, Saunders suggests, the focus should instead be on the service to the ecosystem provided by keeping animals alive. Elephant dung helps rainforest and savanna trees grow, which trap carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “Elephants play an important part in carbon capture and therefore have underlying value from carbon. With each [live] elephant being valued at $1.75 million in terms of carbon sequestration, it would be beneficial for countries with elephants to lobby for such an exchange for their living elephant populations and campaign for a sponsored burn of stockpiles,” she said in an email.

Aside from selling ivory, then, selling natural carbon offsets to industrialized countries to fund conservation might be another—and less controversial—way to help save Africa’s elephants.

Tendai Marima is a researcher and journalist based in Southern Africa. Twitter: @i_amten

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