The fortunes of Kasungu National Park’s elephants reflect the species’ suffering across Africa. A thousand gentle giants roamed the Malawian grassland in 1977; forty years later, just eighty remain. Spurred by the lucrative trade in illicit ivory, poaching is rampant. Recent crackdowns have curtailed the practice – but for Poko, one of the park’s best known males, it’s all come too late. His tuskless, mutilated carcass was found last month, placing him among the tens-of-thousands of elephants poached every year. Regardless, as nations meet this month for the planet’s largest conservation summit, some African states are pushing to reopen the trade in ivory.
Delegates from over 180 countries have gathered in Switzerland for the triennial Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). A record of 56 proposals will be discussed, from animal welfare to plant protection. A certain urgency pervades the 2019 meeting – earlier this year a UN-backed report warned that a million species faced annihilation, fuelling fears that the planet could be experiencing its sixth mass extinction, akin to that which destroyed the dinosaurs.
Behemoths of old aren’t on the agenda, though their modern-day counterparts – elephants – promise to take centre stage. Amid sky-rocketing demand for ivory, CITES banned the trade in 1989 – but in subsequent years loosened restrictions on selected nations. Their aim was to flood the market with stockpiles of already-harvested ivory in the hope of reducing demand. The plan backfired dreadfully, triggering a surge in poaching as tusk markets – mostly in Asia – boomed. Over 100,000 African elephants were shot and dismembered between 2006 and 2015.
New regulations and the suspension of Chinese ivory imports have helped elephant populations bounce back, prompting some in Africa to argue for the trade’s return. Conservationists are, unsurprisingly, aghast at the idea, arguing that any shift toward legalisation provides cover for poachers.
“The re-opening of an international trade in ivory will be a death knell for Africa’s elephants,” warns Vera Weber, president of the Franz Weber Foundation, an environmental group. “Now southern African countries want to sell their stockpiles again. It has been proven time and again that these sales have wiped out ten-of thousands of elephants”.
Undeterred, four nations – Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe – have proposed that restrictions on the raw ivory trade be removed. It’s no coincidence that they are among the poorest places on the planet. The illegal trade in wildlife, estimated to be worth some $20bn annually, offers an escape from destitution, a point not lost on Ivonne Higuero, CITES secretary general. It’s too easy for outsiders to say “don’t do this, don’t do that” – instead, development aid should be offered to impoverished communities in return for environmental promises.
But to those facing economic ruin, such long term aspirations mean little. Cash-strapped Zimbabwe boasts the world’s second largest elephant population – a resource Harare leaders say the country must exploit. They’ll be buoyed by South Africa’s success in doubling the number of black rhino hunts, a move agreed at this year’s CITES. The money earned will further conservation efforts, the South African delegation insisted, making the enterprise sustainable. Crippled by their own conservation costs, Zimbabwe is likely to employ a similar argument.
Achieving the required two-thirds support will be a struggle however, and so they’re considering the nuclear option: unilateral withdrawal from CITES. The move would allow Zimbabwe to sell off its $300m ivory stockpile, but it’s a fraught path to choose. As elephant numbers fall, fewer and fewer official markets are open to tusk traders. Illicit routes remain viable however, with Vietnam replacing China as the leading destination for illegal ivory. Just weeks prior to the conference, a record 8.8 tonnes of the material was intercepted en route from Africa to Southeast Asia.
And so, regrettably, the elephants’ slow march to oblivion will likely continue. They’re joined on this lamentable journey by scores of other creatures – least not giraffes and sharks, who are subject to CITES’s scrutiny also. The animal kingdom is remarkably resilient, but facing man-made threats on all fronts – habitat loss, illegal hunting, international trade, climate change – dwindling species stand little chance. More often than not, poaching is a consequence of economic deprivation. Sweeping bans might hold back the tide, but if an extinction crisis is to be avoided, the root causes need to be addressed. Fail, and we’ll have millions more like Poko – brilliant big beasts cut down in their prime.