Where have all the elephants gone?

With the news that Africa has seen its sharpest decline in elephant numbers in 25 years, is enough being done to save them from extinction? And does the EU have blood on its hands?

By James Draven
Published 27 Nov 2016, 15:00 GMT, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 09:57 BST
Two elephants on a background of Mount Kilimanjaro, Amboseli, Kenya.

Two elephants on a background of Mount Kilimanjaro, Amboseli, Kenya.

Photograph by Getty Images

Despite the global trade of ivory being prohibited since 1989, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has announced there are just 415,000 African elephants remaining in the wild, a decline of more than 110,000 from 2007 to the end of 2015.

The study was released at the 17th meeting of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty signed by 182 countries and designed to prevent the international wildlife and plant trade from endangering species. It's clearly not working.

The IUCN's pan-African survey says the huge losses are due to a surge in poaching over the past 10 years, driven by Asia's demand for ivory products. Nevertheless, Namibia and Zimbabwe, supported by South Africa, made a proposal at the summit, asking for permission to sell off their ivory stockpiles to international markets, on the grounds that their countries have stable elephant populations. Their request was denied — this time.

But in the past decade, CITES has allowed a 'one-off' commercial sale of stockpiles of elephant ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, which was completed in 2009.

"They sold it to the Chinese and Japanese markets, which just fuelled their insatiable demand," Nathan Kibe Gatundu, a tourism warden with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), tells me. "That was a mistake. After that we saw a big spike in poaching."

Kenya, in contrast, sent a strong message about their stance by publicly burning their stockpile of 106 tonnes of ivory in April this year. Despite East Africa having lost 50% of its elephant population over the past decade, Kenya has seen a rise in numbers and an expansion in their range.

Speaking at London's Royal Geographic Society during the CITES conference, Dr Richard Leakey, chairman of the KWS, said: "They should change the organisation's name to KITES: Kill all International Trade in Endangered Species. The wildlife trade is such a shameful and disgusting practice. Forget just elephants — let's ban the use of all wild species once and for all. There's a minor chance it will help them survive."

How anyone can find a white chess piece or a carved ornament more beautiful than seeing these animals in the wild is utterly unfathomable. Yet, over the past 10 years, the illegal ivory trade has been booming, a status symbol for China's wealthy elite. But, says Dr Cynthia Moss, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), "Part of the problem is ignorance. WildAid and IFAW surveyed the Chinese public and found that 70% didn't know elephants had to die to get their tusks. They thought they just fell off!

"Eighty-three per cent said if they'd known, they'd never have bought it, so IFAW launched a public awareness campaign in China, starring Prince William, David Beckham and Jackie Chan." Apparently, it's working.

Surprisingly, it was China and the USA, who — as the world's two biggest ivory markets — spearheaded domestic bans. But as long as it remains legal to sell ivory within individual nations, the demand for poached tusks continues. The good news is that all 182 CITES members agreed for the first time that all domestic ivory markets must be closed.

But is CITES simply a toothless watchdog? A single elephant yields up to 10kg of ivory worth up to £16,500. And with the backing of international crime syndicates, and corruption rife, elephants remain at risk.

Progress is being made, though. The hope is that with pressure on countries to enforce domestic bans, demand will start to fall and tusks will, once again, only be valuable to elephants.

Tell me more...

Why did Namibia and Zimbabwe even ask to sell ivory?

It's complicated: all African elephants are included in Appendix I of CITES — which bans all commercial international trade — except for elephants in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, which fall under Appendix II, allowing that they may be internationally traded with the necessary permits. However, there's an annotation to Appendix II, which currently forbids this. As such, all commercial international trade in elephant ivory is prohibited under CITES. Namibia and Zimbabwe wanted to remove the existing annotations from Appendix II.

OK, so why does the EU have 'blood on its hands'?
Many African nations — including Botswana, which is covered by Appendix II — backed a resolution that would see all elephants elevated to Appendix I, affording every elephant the highest level of protection. Incredibly, the EU and USA opposed this. Because the EU voted as a block, its 28 votes ensured the bid failed.

What about Indian elephants?
They're all protected under Appendix I.

Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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