After CITES: What next for Africa’s elephants?

Despite the disappointing outcome of the 17th Convention on the International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) Conference, held in South Africa in September 2016, here is hope for the future, says CEO and Founder of Space for Giants Dr Max Graham.

There were three main outcomes from. that have implications for the future of Africa’s elephants. Here, I briefly summarise what these are and what can be done to ensure elephants have a future post CITES.

The first major decision was the abandonment of the decision-making mechanism for a future legal trade in ivory (DMM). This is potentially a positive outcome for elephants, signalling to the market and those looking to potentially stockpile ivory for future trade, that there isn’t likely to be full-blown legal international trade in ivory anytime soon. However subsequent decisions possibly undermined what could have been a positive outcome.

The second, highly charged and divisive outcome of CITES was keeping elephants in the Southern Africa countries of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa on Appendix II, rather than uplifting all elephant populations to Appendix 1 which would effectively ban all trade and provide the highest level of protection under CITES. Appendix II allows for the possible trade in species, subject to certain conditions being fulfilled. Indeed, it is this status which resulted in the sale from southern Africa of 120 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan since 2008, which arguably led to the current elephant poaching crisis by creating a perception that ivory is a commodity that is legally acceptable to trade. The decision to not uplift all elephants in Africa to Appendix I has ultimately kept the door open for future trade, signalling to the world that elephants do not yet merit the highest level of protection that CITES can offer and that there is still an appetite among some African nations to sell their ivory stock piles. This is an unhelpful message for cash-strapped African countries who are battling so hard to keep their wild elephant populations safe from the illegal ivory trade.  What is perhaps most surprising was that Europe and the USA contributed to this decision, despite the objections of the vast majority of elephant range states.

The third outcome was a voluntary commitment to phase out the domestic trade in ivory by all parties. This was a powerful outcome but the lack of a time frame for when this might be achieved creates sufficient ambiguity that in the near term, maybe as long as 10 years or so, ivory is going to be an item that can be bought legally in many of the domestic markets around the world.  It is this within this window of uncertainty that Africa could lose many of its elephant populations.

In summary, my personal view is that while there were some very well meaning and positive statements of intent, with Botswana in particular meriting mention, ultimately the status quo remains. Some countries in Africa have reserved the right to trade their ivory stockpiles in future. There is still a thriving domestic trade in ivory across many countries, including in China the greatest market for ivory in the world. As a consequence ivory will continue to be perceived as an acceptable commodity to own and will continue to be traded and elephants in the wild and the people who protect them will, therefore continue to be under enormous threat.

So…What can be done to manage this threat?

First we need to shift the focus and associated resources from banning the international trade in ivory into banning the domestic trade in ivory. This needs to happen not just in China but also in the West, in countries such as the UK, where the thriving market in antique ivory poses challenges in global messaging and undermines constructive dialogue with those countries that are the biggest destinations for illegal ivory. This is an opportunity for those living outside of Africa who feel frustrated about the elephant crisis to actually go out and do something in their own countries-lobby your governments to take action.  An example of this is the campaign to get the UK government to see through its petition to ban the illegal ivory trade.

Second we need to scale up investment in frontline protection in those countries where the political will exists for meaningful conservation action and we need to actively isolate those countries that do not demonstrate that political will. If we do this, then at least we will have a holding position for Africa’s elephants.

Third, we must increase our efforts to bring real resources into the protection of elephant landscapes and indeed all of our natural capital. Less than 1 % of the bottom line of any of the FTSE 100 companies’ balance sheets, would effectively conserve elephants in Africa. The mainstreaming of conservation into our every day consumption patterns is a simple step that we must work with businesses to achieve.

Finally, we need to change optics of the conservation conversation. Instead of the West talking to China about the impacts of Chinese consumption patterns on African wilderness. This should instead by a conversation between African leaders and China. This would result in a very different outcome. And needs to be encouraged and supported, wherever possible.