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Written by: Wei Ji

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments, which regulates the trade of wildlife and wildlife goods, including ivory. 

The regulation of trade in wildlife is laid out in three CITES Appendices. Appendix I prohibits all commercial trade and includes the most endangered animals while appendix II allows commercial trade as long as it is non-detrimental to the survival of the species. Appendix III allows member states to ask other parties for cooperation and assistance in the regulation of trade of specific species.

©Wei Ji

In 1975, the African elephant was not listed on any of the three appendices. This all changed in 1976 when Ghana asked member states for assistance in the trade of elephant products and listed the elephant on Appendix III. A year later elephants were transferred to Appendix II – applicable to all states – allowing trade as long as it was considered not detrimental to the species. For 11 years regulated trade was permitted, however the decline of elephants continued until action was taken in 1989 and African elephants were transferred to Appendix I.

Since 1989, the population of African elephants has rebounded in many countries and in 1997 the populations of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were down-listed to Appendix II. Since then the African elephant has had a split-listing and, although many proposals aimed at altering levels of regulation have occurred, only one has been approved – the down-listing of African elephants by South Africa in 2000.

This historical background provides a greater understanding and the overall context to the proceedings of the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties, to be held in South Africa in September 2016. Several countries, including Kenya, will propose the up-listing of elephants, from Appendix II to I, whilst Zimbabwe and Namibia are hoping to remove certain restrictions currently in place on the Appendix II listing.

At the epicentre of the debate is the Ivory Trade Decision-Making Mechanism (DMM) which is to be discussed and finalised at the 17th conference. The DMM was used to facilitate the one-off ivory sale in 2008 as well as the nine-year subsequent ban on sales; a compromise that both pro and anti-trade sides accepted. However with time, justification for the DMM is diminishing as it is both costly and difficult to maintain. For the proposal to keep the DMM to be successful it needs to obtain a two-thirds majority vote which, given the outcomes of historical votes, seems unlikely. If the proposal to keep the DMM fails, African elephant range states will, once again, need to renegotiate the future of international trade of African elephant specimens.

Although since 1989 we have witnessed the differing effects of trade bans on populations and subsequent effects of downgrading of Tanzania’s elephant population and the upgrading of southern Africa’s population there is still difficulty reaching a consensus amongst conservationists as to the future level of trade that should be allowed. Whatever the outcome of the 17th Convention it is clear that a united front is needed, particularly against illegal trade and other issues, such as habitat loss and conflict, that threaten the future of African elephants.

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