By Susie Watts
The problem with the elephant debate in a CITES context is that the political symbolism of the African elephant has always blinded Parties to the horrific consequences of putting a commercial value on the species’ body parts.
Elephants are often referred to as “flagship” species and nowhere is this more true than in the CITES debate over “sustainable utilisation”. It seems pretty clear to me that, at some point in the very early 1990s, senior members of the CITES Secretariat, along with certain international NGOs, decided that if they could prove to the world that sustainable use works for elephants, they could prove that it works for any species. The elephants have been the poster child for that difficult and much wider debate ever since.
It was all about the timing, in my view. In 1987, African elephants were on Appendix II and a CITES-commissioned “ivory quota system” had been devised by a Zimbabwean lobbyist. Predictably, it had not reduced elephant poaching or illegal trade – far from it – and it was estimated that 80-90% of all ivory in international trade at the time had been taken from poached elephants. By 1989, elephants were being killed at a rate of 2,000 a week. Just as we were beginning to recognise the sheer scale of CITES’ failure to control the “legal” trade, countries in Southern Africa were putting a great deal of time and effort into developing the concept of Community-based Natural Resource Management. CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe was in its infancy and all the chatter in Southern African wildlife circles at the time was around the mantra of “use it or lose it”. The war in Zimbabwe – a war that was essentially fought over land – was still a vivid memory and land use issues were dominant in the thinking. How could the true value of land be realised and livelihoods supported without the damaging effects that livestock caused? How could those people who had been pushed into marginal areas during the colonial era make a living from land that was often unsuitable for cultivation or livestock?
Unfortunately, those very legitimate concerns were translated into some very woolly thinking and, it has to be said, by some clever manipulation of the truth. For example, it was repeatedly stated that the ban would deprive communities of their livelihoods because money from the ivory trade was being used for community wildlife projects, when the reality at the time was that all money earned through the sale of ivory went directly into central Treasury coffers in every Southern African country. The debate over international trade in ivory was characterised as one between rich and poor, the developed and developing world. The fact that it was Tanzania that proposed the Appendix I listing was conveniently overlooked, as were the pro-ban views of a large majority of African elephant range States. More....