Zimbabwe has claimed it needs to sell its $300 million stockpile of ivory tusks. The government has claimed that recurrent droughts and natural habitats depleted by climate change have increased the strain on the nation to provide for its elephants.

In the past six years, the Southern African nation has sold 97 elephants to China and Dubai, raising $2.7 million. Home to the world’s second largest population of elephants, it claimed to use that money for “conservation” purposes.

Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesman, Tinashe Farawo, said: “We have 84,000 elephants against a carrying capacity of 50,000. We believe in the sustainable use of resources, so we sell a few elephants to take care of the rest.”

According to Mr. Farawo, 200 people have died in “human-and-animal conflict” in the past five years. Elephants have also destroyed at least 7,000 hectares of crops in the country.

The International Ivory Trade

Zimbabwe wants to be allowed to trade its ivory, despite the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifying elephants as both “endangered” and “vulnerable to extinction”.

In 1975, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was founded. The treaty was formed to ensure that “international trade in plants and animals does not threaten their survival in the wild.”

In the same year, to curb poaching, the treaty banned the international trade of ivory from Asian elephants. By 1989, this ban was expanded to include African elephants. Zimbabwe is currently considering withdrawing from CITES.

Doctor Phyllis Lee, elephant biologist at the Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Stirling, said: If Zimbabwe withdraws from CITES, it can then trade its ivory with other non-CITES countries.

Potentially, this means that North Korea could start an ivory carving market. Elephants would go extinct, as North Korea could potentially then trade worked ivory with a few other countries. UAE once left CITES, but it has since rejoined. If South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania and Namibia withdraw from CITES altogether, they will then be able to trade ivory with each other.

But, this is not where the market is. It is in the USA, EU, China, Japan and other South-Asian countries, where trade and import of ivory would still be illegal. If Japan withdrew, that would rapidly lead to catastrophic elephant declines.

“Vulnerable to Extinction”

Dr. Lee further described Zimbabwe’s possible resurgence of the international trade on ivory as a “slippery slope”.

She said: “Trade will enable the market for ivory to be sustained at a level that can not be met by current (or future) reproductive rates. Elephant tusks should be collected based on natural mortality. The market, however, will cause elephants to be harvested (killed intentionally for their ivory).

“Harvesting even a very small proportion of the population of old males and females will cause catastrophic population declines within 30 years, even where there are no changes to land use and other pressures on elephants and their habitats.”

Last month, countries from Southern and Central Africa – including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Namibia and Botswana – convened to discuss how to handle its collective wildlife ahead of the CITES convention in August.

However, claims of elephant overpopulation in these countries remain questionable. Speaking to InsideOver, Dr. Lee said: “The elephant population in Zimbabwe has been relatively stable over the past five years, although there have been losses due to poisoning and poaching.”

Nevertheless, she attributes the lack of resources for elephants to “expanding human populations, no land use planning, and no existing functioning mechanisms for ensuring that local people benefit from wildlife.”

This claim is backed up by CITES, who reported in 2017 that “Africa’s elephant populations continue to fall due to continued illegal killing, land transformation and rapid human expansion.” Although elephants are sentient beings, Zimbabwe’s traded elephants as “feeder stocks for the recently established captive populations of elephants in China, and for entertainment in Dubai.”

Dr. Lee criticised these new imports: “elephants do not survive well or for very long in captivity. They have very poor reproduction as well, so elephant exhibits in zoos are not self-sustaining.” The conditions in Chinese zoos are thought to be terrible, although no formal assessment has been made. Captive elephants in Japan and India are known to live in inappropriate conditions for elephant welfare and well-being.

Live capture and non-commercial exchanges (allegedly) are permitted under current CITES rules. There is supposed to be a confirmation from the seller that the elephants will go to live in appropriate conditions, and that it will not be for commercial purposed.” Yet Zimbabwe’s elephants were sold to China and Dubai for profit in “trade and financial exchanges with external zoos”. The international trade of elephants and ivory would be a “rapid road to extinction” for these megaherbivores, Dr. Lee predicted.