Allow ivory trade? “The market can hardly be controlled”

The helicopters flew through the protected area near Kamanjab. It was early September 2021 when 22 young elephants were separated from their mothers and herds by the noise and wind. They were shot at with a rifle from the air in order to stun them and load them onto trucks. Six months of quarantine, then re-anesthesia, container loading, preparation for flight to a new home, which was no longer the wilderness of Namibia but two zoos in the United Arab Emirates. However, only 21 of the 22 animals arrived, and the whereabouts of the missing young animal are unclear.

Just as unclear as the fate of other elephants who were caught in Africa’s wild when they were around two years old to be sold to zoos and amusement parks. On October 24, 2019 for example, the trail of five elephant children is lostwho were supposed to be loaded onto a plane at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe but never made it to their destination of Shanghai, reports “The Journal of African Elephants“, a portal operated by conservationists, biologists and environmental journalists.

Wild-caught baby elephants are illegally sold to zoos in Asia

The transport of wild-caught elephants has actually been banned since 2019. This is determined by the Washington Convention on Endangered Species (Cites). Tanzania, which previously sold elephants to zoos in China and South Korea, and Eswatini, which sold to the US, said “The Guardians“ reported, stopped the export. Despite the ban, the big players in the elephant trade continued. Zimbabwean elephants were shipped to China, Namibian to the Emirates. International calls for clarification went unanswered.

The next World Species Conservation Conference has now begun, and from November 14 there will be debates in Panama, among other things, about the protection of rhinos and hippos – both animal species are poached because of their horns or tusks. But also about elephants. And it’s about illegal sales to zoos again, even if it has long been regulated – regardless of the facts that Namibia and Zimbabwe have created.

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The EU wants to stay out of the issue

The majority of the 54 African countries are opposed to capturing animals from the wild and selling them to zoos and amusement parks – eight countries are applying to do so. “They are calling for the trade in African elephants to be limited to their natural habitat,” says Daniela Freyer from the animal protection organization Pro Wildlife, which will participate in the debate in Panama, to the editorial network Germany (RND). There is support from almost all African countries. Only the countries in southern Africa, which were previously the largest exporters of live animals, are against it.

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Will you agree? It probably also depends on the attitude of the European Union, says Freyer. And she is disappointed: “The EU proposes a kind of dialogue meeting between all African states in order to reach a consensus. That is cynical to the point of perfidious.” It is well known that states have different opinions – but it is also clear how the majority of African countries position themselves and have positioned themselves in the past.

Wild caught elephants in zoos: there is danger to life

It has long been about more than just locking up animals, tearing them out of their structures – because transport is life-threatening for the animals. More than 150 elephants were shipped to zoos in Zimbabwe alone between 2012 and 2019. Dozens of them died during capture, in the enclosures, during transport or in the zoos. In the wild, female baby elephants stay with their mothers forever, while males don’t leave their mothers until they are 12 to 15 years old.

Of the first eight elephants shipped in 2012, four died en route to Shanghai, and three more died shortly after at the zoo. Only one elephant left, Xiaofei, he lives in Taiyuan Zoo. In second place comes Namibia, which also repeatedly has baby elephants caught in the country’s parks in order to sell them to Mexico or Cuba, for example.

Climate catastrophes, pet trade, poaching: the threat to elephants

But this practice isn’t the only threat facing the world’s largest land mammal. The climate crisis is poised to decimate elephant populations, which have just recovered somewhat after years of excessive poaching. In Kenya alone, 205 elephants have died due to drought in the past nine months, three years ago more than 200 died in Zimbabwe during a period of drought Pachyderm. In Around 330 elephants died in Botswana after drinking water contaminated with blue-green algae – a consequence of rising temperatures.

At the same time, the catastrophic climatic conditions ensure that people invade the habitat of the animals – and animals in search of food leave their previously familiar territories and rage in human settlements.

African forest elephants are considered critically endangered, while African savannah elephants, like here in Zimbabwe, are considered endangered.

African forest elephants are considered critically endangered, while African savannah elephants, like here in Zimbabwe, are considered endangered.

Every 25 minutes an elephant dies from poaching

And then there is poaching, which is still the leading cause of death for elephants. About every 25 minutes, an elephant dies from illegal poaching. Around 20,000 animals, every year. The result: while 10 million elephants lived in Africa 120 years ago and two million elephants 50 years ago, today there are only 350,000 to 400,000. The African forest elephant has therefore been classified as critically endangered since last year, and the African savannah elephant as endangered.

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In recent years, the poaching cases of elephants have sometimes even fallen sharply. But animal rights activists fear that this could change. Because Zimbabwe wants to legalize the trade in ivory and elephant leather from Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. This will also be discussed at the species protection conference.

Legalize the ivory trade? There are arguments for it too

It is not the first time that countries in southern Africa have taken this step. Zimbabwe tried it last year, and Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and South Africa have also called for legalization. “So it’s sort of a success that this time the application comes only from Zimbabwe,” says Freyer cynically. Zimbabwe’s application could also get approval from Eswatini and Tanzania.

At first glance, the situation seems clear: legalize the ivory trade? Never. But the states from southern Africa have arguments. They have tons of legally sourced ivory rotting in government stockpiles — it comes from thousands of elephants who died of natural causes. If this ivory were sold, the countries argued, the Japanese market – the only one to legalize the ivory trade – could be saturated and the money raised could be used to set up elephant conservation projects.

In 1900 there were still more than 10 million African elephants, now there are only around 350,000 to 400,000 specimens, like here in the Etosha National Park in Namibia.

In 1900 there were still more than 10 million African elephants, now there are only around 350,000 to 400,000 specimens, like here in the Etosha National Park in Namibia.

Elephant populations are stable in southern Africa

Zimbabwe alone keeps ivory worth 600 million euros – and that costs money. Not just the storage itself, but above all the security forces who have to monitor the facility day and night. As “The standardreported, the question of whether to legalize the sale of ivory is also about human lives. Because again and again elephants invade human areas and kill them in the process. As of May 2022, 60 people in Zimbabwe are said to have died at the hands of elephants.

With increasing habitat loss due to drought or flooding, conflicts between humans and elephants are becoming more common. Zimbabwe recently said it was fed up with interfering in the social affairs of African states from countries in Europe that, like Germany, can’t even handle a single bear that kills a few sheep. As once during the colonization, decisions are made over African needs, reports “Deutschlandfunk Nova“.

Does legalization help against poaching? Animal rights activists doubt it

But animal welfare organizations doubt that legalizing the ivory trade can help other animals. In 2008 there was a pilot project decided by Cites. 108 tons of ivory were exported to China and Japan from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. China had opened up the national market for this.

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But the ivory business flourished. New carving workshops and shops that traded in ivory emerged. Illegally procured ivory is said to have been lying next to the legally imported ivory. “Legal trade is often used as a cover for illegal trade in poached ivory. In addition, a demand is generated that is often met with freshly poached ivory,” says Heike Henderson-Altenstein from the organization “Future for Elephants” of the RND.

Ivory trade legalized – poaching increases

At the same time, poaching of elephants in sub-Saharan Africa increased enormously. In Tanzania alone, more than 65,000 elephants were illegally killed between 2009 and 2017, more than 60 percent of the country’s total elephant population, according to “Deutschlandfunkreported. In 2008, 6,900 kilograms of ivory were confiscated, from 2009 to 2017 the average was 43,000 kilograms – per year.

Cites says it has no evidence of a causal link between market opening and the increase in poaching. “But we assume that the demand was fueled,” says Freyer to the RND. Especially since the project ended in 2016 – and China 2019 and Hong Kong 2020 closed the national ivory market again, and the USA and the EU have tightened the guidelines again.

Trophy hunters can legally bring ivory abroad

The ivory trade is currently severely restricted, but there are numerous exceptions in various countries. For example, trophy hunters who shoot elephants in southern or eastern Africa are allowed to take the animal and tusks home with them. In the past, ivory that was legally imported into the EU has repeatedly found its way onto the black market in Asia – with forged documents.

What can be observed on a small scale in trophy hunting could become a major problem if the ivory market opens up further: if licenses are forged or created through corruption, illegally procured ivory thus becoming legal merchandise. “The market can hardly be controlled,” says Henderson-Altenstein. “Without extensive testing, you can’t tell freshly poached ivory from antique ivory or the tusks of elephants that died naturally.”

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