Guest Article: Elephant in the Room: CITES and African Elephants | SDG Knowledge Hub

By John Scanlon AO, Jonathan Barzdo, and Greta F. Iori

In Memoriam. Richard Leakey, Kenyan conservationist and paleoanthropologist

Of the 39,000 species included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices, and therefore falling under its trade controls, there is one that has nearly always been the proverbial “elephant in the room.” A fractious debate has raged on for decades at CITES triennial meetings of party states (CoPs), over trade in the ivory of the African elephant. An effective ban on commercial trade was agreed in 1989, when the species was included in Appendix I. Over the following ten years, four populations were returned to Appendix II, with special conditions, and two “one off” sales of certain ivory stockpiles were allowed, in 1999 and 2008.

theory vs practice

The theory behind legal trade is sound, with elephants dying of natural causes, their ivory being collected and traded internationally, and the revenue going back to local communities. Unfortunately, it has not worked out that way for many reasons. In practice, the international community has been unable to put into place adequate safeguards to manage the trade, which has triggered the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory, fueled smuggling, and provided a cover for laundering.

Votes on ivory trade and the limits of CITES

After a short respite at CoP16 in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2013, when CITES parties agreed to focus on the immediate threat posed by the surge in poaching of elephants for their ivory, a heated debate resumed at each subsequent CoP: in Johannesburg, South Africa , in 2016; in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2019; and Panama City, Panama, in 2022.

While strongly held differences of opinion exist on ivory trade, African countries seeking to open commercial trade, or to keep ivory trade closed, are equally committed to conservation and face similar development and financing challenges, together with increasing levels of conflicts between humans and elephants.

The mood of CITES parties in recent years has been to keep commercial international ivory trade closed. At three successive CITES conferences since 2016, proposals to effectively allow ivory trade from certain African countries have each gained fewer than 25 votes in favor, well short of the required two-thirds majority. In fact, parties have rather sought to restrict domestic ivory markets.

It is clear that African countries’ legitimate need for a reliable and sustainable source of conservation finance will not be satisfied by international ivory trade. The debate at each CITES meeting ends with a vote on whether to open trade or not, leaving some satisfied and others disgruntled, with the underlying common concern of financing remaining unresolved.

A changing landscape

Significant financial resources are now flowing to address the twin environmental crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. New pledges to scale up biodiversity funding were made at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP 15 in December last year. This scale of financing was not available when CITES was adopted in 1973, nor when the two “one-off” sales were agreed.

Recent research by Ralph Chami of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows the astonishing economic value of the carbon benefits provided by live African forest elephants, with each animal estimated to be worth USD 1.75 million across its lifetime.

There is an historic opportunity for Africa to take a new approach to elephant conservation.

Tackling the twin environmental crises requires healthy elephant populations and the multiple services they provide. Directing funding into elephant conservation will reinforce the conservation of entire ecosystems and the wildlife they support, help to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and create sustainable jobs for people who live near these majestic, but dangerous, animals.

Looking ahead to the next 50 years

CITES 184 parties will not agree to open ivory trade in the foreseeable future. While debates about live elephant trade and trade in other body parts are likely to endure for some time, we can be optimistic that, over the next 50 years, the debate about Africa’s elephants will enter a more constructive phase, that will serve to bring African elephant range states together in common cause.

States have the opportunity to give center stage to the multiple benefits that flow from maintaining healthy elephant populations, the many ecosystem services they provide, achieving harmonious coexistence between elephants and people, and how this will all be sustainably financed.

The success of the SDGs, the Global Biodiversity Framework, and the Paris Agreement on climate change is inextricably linked to the survival of Africa’s elephants, and the stage is now set for the fractious debate of the past to move beyond ivory and, in fact, to increasingly move beyond CITES.

John Scanlon AO is CEO of the Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation, Chair of the UK Government’s IWT Challenge Fund, Chair of the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime, and former Secretary-General of CITES.

Jonathan Barzdo is an independent consultant on CITES and wildlife trade, formerly Chief of Governing Bodies and Special Advisor on Implementation at the CITES Secretariat.

Greta F. Iori is Director of Program with the Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation, leading on the implementation of its Human-Elephant Conflict strategy, a founding fellow of the Women for the Environment Africa, and member of the IUCN SSC Human-Wildlife Conflict and Coexistence Specialist Group.

On 3 March 2023, CITES will celebrate its 50th anniversary. This article is part of a series themed, ‘CITES at 50,’ the SDG Knowledge Hub is publishing to commemorate the occasion.


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