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Africa Geographic Travel

The history of the ivory trade since the colonial era paints a depressing picture about the fate of elephants. Between 1860 and 1920 roughly 33,000 tonnes of ivory were shipped from Africa to the British Empire – the equivalent of 1.1 million elephants.


Approximately 100,000 elephants were slaughtered per year in Africa from 1850 to 1929 to supply ivory to companies in the USA that manufactured piano keys and billiard balls from ivory. In 1916 Americans even hung a circus elephant called Mary who mauled her keeper to death. 13 years earlier Thomas Edison captured his highly publicised electrocution of an elephant on film.


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals. It was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at a meeting of members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  The convention was opened for signature in 1973, and CITES entered into force on 1 July 1975. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild, and it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 35,000 species of plants and animals. CITES is an international agreement to which countries adhere voluntarily. There are currently 183 members.

The triennial Conference of the Parties (CoP) of CITES takes place in Johannesburg from 24 September to 5 October 2016. This will be the seventeenth time members will convene since CITES was established in 1975. All commercial international trade of ivory from elephants is presently prohibited under CITES.

It is estimated that there were about 5 million elephants in Africa at the turn of the 19th century. In 1979 there were approximately 1.3 million elephants in Africa and by 1989 the numbers declined to 600,000. The Great Elephant Census released its results in September 2016, proving that only 352,271 savannah elephants survive in sub-Saharan Africa. Forest elephant populations have crashed by 60% since 2002, now counting less than 60,000.


Since 1999, CITES approved two “one-off” sales of ivory. In 1999, 50 tonnes of ivory were sold to Japan for a meagre US$5 million. China’s inexcusable reputation as importers of illegal ivory prevented it from buying in the 1999 sale (all went to Japan), but China did participate in the 2008 sale after TRAFFIC representatives investigated and approved the so-called effectiveness of Chinese controlling mechanisms. This did not deter ivory smuggling to China. Between 2012 and 2014 over 41 tonnes of smuggled ivory were confiscated in China.

In 2008 Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia were again allowed by CITES to complete once-off ivory sales, selling 108 tonnes of ivory at an average price of US$157 p/kg for only US$15.5 million. Records of how these funds were ploughed back into conservation are not available on the CITES website.


At the time, CITES issued a press release stating ” Elephant populations of the four countries are in Appendix II of CITES, which means that, even though they are not necessarily now threatened with extinction, the trade in their products is strictly regulated. Recent studies concluded that over 312,000 elephants live in these four countries and that their number has increased in recent years.” Earlier this year Namibia claimed to have over 20, 000 elephants. Adding the very recent results from The Great Elephant Census, these four Southern African countries today have about 261,000 elephants, which is a 16% decrease equal to 51,000 elephants (7,200 per year) since the 2008 sale.

The 2007 African agreement stipulates that no new proposals for further sales from the four countries concerned are to be considered by CITES during a resting period of nine years, commencing as soon as the new sales have been completed.


The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) is a comprehensive information system to track illegal trade in ivory and other elephant products. It aims to record and analyse levels of illegal trade. Monitoring these statistics started as far back as 1997. It has become a well-established and effective tool for monitoring illegal trade in elephant products.

The Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) is another division of CITES (far more expensive than ETIS) that was created in 1997 to provide further reports and information to CITES at each meeting of the Conference of the Parties. MIKE assists in the dialogue between CITES members and facilitates the decision-making processes of CITES. It also provides elephant range states with data to assist with the management and enforcement decisions for the long-term management of their populations of elephants.


In her 2002 book Policing International Trade in Endangered Species: The CITES Treaty and Compliance, Rosalind Reeve mentions that the projected cost for the first six years of MIKE was conservatively US$13.4 million. MIKE faced criticism from several countries when India and Kenya commented that funding should rather be used for the prevention of elephant poaching than the establishment of expensive Rolls Royce programmes for monitoring elephant populations. Reeve comments: “ is questionable whether the human and financial costs of ETIS and MIKE, all to satisfy the desire of a handful of parties to trade in one commodity from one species, can be justified, especially given the limited funds available to CITES. Elephants are the “flagship” species of CITES, spending such vast sums on verification and monitoring without attempting to raise equivalent funds for preventative anti-poaching measures detracts from crucial issues such as improving the capacity for enforcement of CITES at national level.”

The Context

In early September 2016, over 6,000 delegates attended the IUCN congress in Hawaii. More than 90% of members voted against all future domestic ivory sales by adopting Motion 007. Several countries voted against motion 007 namely Japan, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and Namibia.  (South Africa and Namibia threatened to resign from the IUCN).

In 2015 the presidents of the USA and China undertook to impose a near total ban of ivory trade. Hong Kong has committed to phasing out the ivory trade over the next five years. However, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe have submitted proposals to CITES to re-open discussions at CoP17 surrounding the Decision Making Mechanisms for the ivory trade.

On the opposing side, 29 African states formed the African Elephant Coalition and have submitted proposals to CITES for consideration at CoP17 to upgrade all African elephants to Appendix I (countered by South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe) and to agree to close all domestic ivory trade. The European Union, WWF and CITES are rejecting both these opposing proposals.

Ivory burns

Ivory destructions are a popular and contentious method for nations to publicly assert their opposition to the illegal wildlife trade. Since 1989 about 20 of these events have taken place all over the world. These countries have openly declared war on ivory smuggling and that wildlife crimes will not be tolerated. So far over 220 tonnes of ivory have been destroyed. WWF and TRAFFIC want the destruction of ivory to be monitored by rigorous documentation and audits to reduce the risk of leakage into the black market.

A third “once-off sale” and re-opening discussions of the ivory trade

Firstly, why even call it a once-off sale? The previous sales were supposed to flood the market. Since then, African elephants have reduced by 30%, or 144,000, with over 30,000 elephants being killed for their ivory every year.

South Africa’s stockpile of ivory is 65 tonnes. Assuming South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe collectively held as much as 200 tonnes, the stigma of buying ivory will restrict bidders to a few Asian buyers. Latest studies have shown that the price of ivory has dropped from US$2,100p/kg to US$1,100p/kg. Should an optimistic auction price of US$300 p/kg be achieved, the sale could gross about US$60 million, less the enormous costs associated with the auctions. Historically CITES is unable to control if funds from approved ivory sales are ploughed back into conservation efforts and not racketeered by the corruption so prevalent all over Africa.


Some individual philanthropists have single-handedly donated US$24 million to conservation in Africa. Funds raised from the ivory sales in 1999 and 2008 are infinitesimal if compared to the conservation finance funneled to the African continent. It is time to donate conditionally in return for guaranteed ivory destruction by those minority African nations determined to re-open the trade, regardless of the international condemnation and abhorrence evidenced at the IUCN conference in Hawaii, when more than 90% of members voted in favour of a domestic ban across all nations.

South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs has an approved budget of US$9 million to host the CoP17 of CITES in Johannesburg from 24 September to 5 October. Over 3,000 delegates from 183 member countries, NGOs and international media will attend. Costs of delegates’ flights, accommodation, salaries etc. will again amount to millions. Expenses at the recent IUCN congress would have been much more due to 6,000 delegates in attendance. Since the establishment of CITES, ivory trade has been discussed ad infinitum in boardrooms and conference halls around the world.  Donor funding in lieu of ivory destruction will obviate the need for further onerous record keeping of tracking sales, certificates and inventories of legal sales versus parallel illegal markets, channeling these funds rather prudently into combatting wildlife crime.


Will the world witness another round of dubious, unkind and immoral decisions taken at Cop17? At this juncture of civilization, leaders need to grasp that geographic borders do not bestow ownership of sentient animals whose boundaries have been created by mankind. Besides the threat of habitat destruction caused by global warming, civil war, population explosions, hunting and poaching, the elephant cannot be hung in conference halls like yesteryear. Arguments by minority CITES members who want to trade ivory because elephants reside in their borders are ignorant of fiscal intelligence. Future generations will be dumbstruck when studying history that illustrates amorphous political agendas in the conservation world, where ignorant politicians yielded power and influence over transitory officials for the sake of paltry dollars.


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Businessman, conservation activist, fundraiser for rhino conservation. Involved in raising global awareness for the plight of Africa's wildlife, especially endangered species of rhinos, elephants and lions, using social media platforms to educate against use of ivory and rhino horn in markets in Asia.

Africa Geographic Travel
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