Elephants face a major poaching crisis, and their populations are falling dramatically across the African continent, with an astonishing 61% decline in the last three decades. Between 30,000 and 40,000 elephants are poached for their ivory every year in Africa, that's around 100 African elephants killed every day, or one elephant gunned down every 15 minutes. At this present killing rate and with fewer than half a million elephants left across Africa, they could be extinct from the wild in just a few decades. It's that simple. Either we act now, or we could lose them forever, and we can't claim that we didn't see it coming.
The good news is that we have a clear opportunity coming up to do something about it; implement a total global ban on the ivory trade. The bad news is that the European Union - the largest exporter of legal ivory - is opposing the ban.
In a few weeks' time, an important meeting will take place in South Africa - world leaders will gather at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to decide what protections, or otherwise, traded species should be afforded. Elephants are one such species. Despite the obvious threat to the elephant's very survival, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia are advocating to legalise the international commercial trade in ivory.
Not only does this proposal completely disregard the precarious survival of the African elephant and undermine concerted global efforts to combat wildlife crime, but it directly contradicts the wishes of the majority of African elephant range States. The African Elephant Coalition, comprising 29 countries, is opposing these disastrous proposals, and instead wants to see African elephants given the highest level of protection possible under CITES, called Appendix I listing. It is this Appendix I listing that the European Union, the largest voting block at CITES, is currently opposing.
Disaster for elephants
History shows us that legalising ivory trade is a really bad idea, risking an expansion of the ivory trade and incentivising even more poaching. In 1999 and again in 2008, CITES authorised one-off ivory stockpile sales, and research shows that they had a direct detrimental impact, including a 66 percent increase in illegal ivory production and a 71 percent increase in ivory smuggled out of Africa. Quite apart from killing elephants for ivory being morally wrong, it's clear that their populations can't withstand even current levels of poaching, let alone an increase in the killing.
Giving Appendix I protection to all of Africa's elephants is an imperative option that makes sense if we want to save this magnificent species. Elephants are migratory and cross State boundaries that currently give them conflicting levels of protection. Whilst elephants in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana are on Appendix II, elephants in the rest of the African continent are on Appendix I. Some 60 percent of Namibia's elephants are in the north eastern part of the country where they move freely between Namibia, Botswana, Angola and Zambia with the latter two on Appendix I listing. Having different levels of protection for the same animals depending on where they roam makes no practical sense.
A death sentence for elephants
Unbelievably, the European Commission argues that the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe don't meet the criteria for transfer to Appendix I, and that closing domestic ivory markets is unjustified. Virtually every esteemed elephant conservationist on the planet disagrees with that conclusion.
The EU is the world's largest exporter of legal, pre-CITES ivory - ivory obtained prior to 1976, when African elephants were first listed under CITES. However, the EU's position is looking increasingly embarrassing on the world stage - the United States has introduced a near complete ivory trade ban and both China and Hong Kong have pledged to end the trade, too. Yet the European policy- makers are condoning the elephant-decimating, wildlife crime-fueling trade.
For as long as ivory can be sold, elephants will continue to die. Elephants are majestic animals and should not be reduced to trinkets. If the EU's position doesn't change, it really could be a death sentence for elephants. The EU holds the key to their future survival, so when Humane Society International's delegation heads to South Africa for the CITES meeting, we hope to see an EU common position that reflects the urgent need for the highest international levels of elephant protection.
This World Elephant Day on August 12th, we need to ask ourselves how many more such days will we have left before these magnificent animals are extinct in the wild, unless CITES and world governments take decisive action?