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Statement on Zimbabwe elephant summit and ivory trade

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

The Republic of Zimbabwe is hosting a 3-day Elephant Summit in Hwange National Park from the 23rd to 26th May 2022. Their goal is to restart the international ivory trade in preparation for the 19th meeting of the Conference of Parties (CoP19) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which is in November 2022.

It is anticipated 14 representatives from African countries will attend along with China and Japan which are two large consumer markets for ivory. African states that have repeatedly been opposed to restarting the ivory trade have not been invited. Unfortunately, attempts to restart the ivory trade and water down the protection of elephants is not new despite the clear and acknowledged risk to the survival of this iconic species.

African elephants at risk of extinction

African elephants are closer to extinction than previously thought. Back in 2001, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List assessed the African Forest Elephant as Critically Endangered and the African savanna elephant as Endangered. The main threats to the survival of this keystone species are ivory poaching and habitat loss – both of which are ongoing.

Elephant populations are declining with the number of African forest elephants falling by more than 86% over 31 years and African savanna elephant populations decreasing by 60% in 50 years. This Summit is sending a dangerous message to poachers and criminals that elephants are commodities and the ivory trade could be resumed. This will heighten the threat to this iconic species that are already at risk.

The ivory trade

The international commercial ivory trade was outlawed in 1989 under CITES when all elephants were listed on Appendix I of the treaty. This ban was undermined however by two CITES-authorised “one-off” sales in 1999 and 2008 which resulted in a sharp escalation in the killing and poaching of African elephants to supply the black market with illicit ivory, undercutting legal markets, especially in China.

Legalising the ivory trade, including by authorising another ‘’one-off’’ sale could have similarly disastrous consequences. In its attempts to restrict trade in ivory and elephant specimens, CITES has since acknowledged that legal domestic markets can increase the risk to elephant populations and local communities due to the opportunities they create for the laundering of illegal ivory under the guise of legality.

In response to the resurgence in poaching and trafficking following the 2008 sale, the vast majority of African elephant range states called for the closure of all domestic ivory markets worldwide (the Cotonou Declaration of 2015). In 2016 the CITES Parties agreed a resolution, calling on Parties to close their domestic ivory markets. As the single largest destination for illegal ivory, China closed its domestic ivory market in December 2017 a decision now hailed as a significant conservation gain for elephant conservation. The USA, Singapore, the EU, the UK, and numerous African countries have also closed their
markets, mindful of the blurred lines between legal and illegal trade.

Global appetite for legal ivory trade is at a historic low. At the last CITES CoP in 2019 (CoP18), efforts to restart trade and lower the protection of elephants by Southern African countries were once again vetoed by most Parties, including the vast majority of African elephant range states.

Should Zimbabwe or other Southern African countries decide to leave CITES in order to sell their ivory, it is crucial to highlight that any potential consumer country would also have to leave the convention or find itself in serious contravention of its legal obligations, which could result in trade sanctions and economic consequences. Southern African countries stand to lose much more than just their reputation if they choose to abandon CITES.

As Niculin Jager, Swiss ambassador to Zimbabwe, stated on behalf of European envoys ahead of the summit, illegal wildlife trade is an international issue characterised by the involvement of transboundary organised criminal networks.

Between 2009-22, there were at least 152 large-scale ivory seizures (each above 500kg), totaling approximately 270 tonnes of ivory, indicative of serious organised criminal activity. Attempts to restart legal trade would provide organised crime networks with further opportunities to poach and launder trafficked ivory into the legal market. As a result, law enforcement efforts to clamp down on illegal trade would be further undermined. Not even a week ago, 1.5 tonnes of ivory originating from countries in
Southern Africa was seized in the southeast Democratic Republic of the Congo, highlighting how the illegal transboundary ivory trade is a current, persistent threat across the continent.

Elephants are a migratory species and therefore require coordinated international conservation efforts. At a time when demand for ivory is at a historic low and awareness of the need for sustained biodiversity is at a historic high, we urge the international community and policymakers to resist attempts by Zimbabwe and Southern African countries to restart the ivory trade.

The David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) is one of 45 organisations that have signed the statement on the Zimbabwe elephant Summit and legal ivory trade. With one elephant being killed for their tusks every 20 minutes the species is on a fast track to extinction if we do not act now. To find out what DSWF does to protect this iconic species, please visit the elephant conservation page on our website. You can also donate today to help put a stop to this brutal trade.

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