Last year, we witnessed some incredible highs but also some terrible lows for Africa's wildlife. From lions to elephants, rhinos to vultures, we read some incredibly tragic tales about our most beloved species that galvanised the global public into action, but also saw some positive individual stories emerge that gave us hope, like orphaned elephant Simotua's.
Gazing into our crystal ball, with one eye on the past, what difference then will the three biggest African wildlife stories of 2015 have on conservation this year. And more importantly, what's on the horizon for these key species?
1. Cecil the lion
The killing of Cecil, a magnificent 13-year old lion and an icon in Zimbabwe, by an American game hunter justifiably outraged the world but it wasn't just animal lovers who were sickened by his death. From Jimmy Kimmel to Ricky Gervais, the circumstances in which Cecil, a collared lion, was killed; baited, arrowed and shot, shocked the media and world citizens alike. Sadly, Cecil is just one of many lions killed each year by hunters; according to Lion Aid, trophy hunters in Zimbabwe killed around 800 lions in the 10 years to 2009, out of a population in the country of only 1,680.
In the fallout following Cecil's death, we saw American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta airlines all announce that they will no longer ship lion, leopard, elephant, rhino or buffalo killed by trophy hunters. Four months later in December 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in response to the dramatic decline of lion populations in the wild, announced that it will list two lion subspecies under the Endangered Species Act, including those located in India and western and central Africa as endangered, and those located in eastern and southern Africa listed as threatened.
What we could expect for the species in 2016?
With almost nine out of ten lions killed by Americans in canned hunts in South Africa, restrictions by the US Fish and Wildlife Service making it harder to bring back trophies, such as paws or heads, along with higher fees and the refusal by a number of airline carriers to transport hunted animals could have a significant impact on canned hunt ranchers and the numbers of animals killed.
However, until other importing countries like the Czech Republic, Poland and Spain enact similar rules, "the king of the jungle" will continue to face monumental decline, not just from trophy hunters but also from human-wildlife conflict, prey depletion, habitat loss and hunting. Without the infamy behind them, however, these unnamed individuals are unlikely to make the same headlines.
2. Captured elephants in Zimbabwe
In July 2015, the plight of 24 captured elephants in Zimbabwe was confirmed when the authorities began their controversial transport to the Chimelong Wildlife Safari Park in Guangzhou, China, 7 months after they had been captured from the wild.
Ostensibly a fundraising activity by Zimbabwe to bolster coffers for wildlife protection, the unethical transfer was widely lambasted by conservationists, including the DSWT, who vocally expressed their concerns for the elephants ripped away from their mothers and herds, causing untold emotional and psychological damage. After the sale, images shown on National Geographic confirmed our worse fears, showing the elephants to be malnourished, sunken-looking, and scarred by wounds.
Despite international condemnation, the sale was legal under the CITES convention and in January 2016 Zimbabwe's minister remained unrepentant in the face of criticism, quoted as saying: "We will not apologise to anyone because they are our elephants," adding: "We are going to increase the number of exports of elephants and other species," leading to speculation more elephants will be sold this year.
What we could expect in 2016?
Despite widespread and well publicised elephant poaching across Africa, as well as regular incidents of human-wildlife conflict, it appears the latest sale has cemented an unethical government policy to sell natural heritage to bolster national coffers. It's likely we could see further sales, for instance that of 25 captured elephants who remain in the country, made entirely legal while elephants within Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe continue to be listed in CITES Appendix II, permitting their capture/transfer.
Most worrying, if such a policy continues despite international pressure, it begs the question: Will we see a policy of 'capture, ship and repeat'? pursued among other African countries, ostensibly under the guise of 'over-population' - as reports from Swaziland suggest.
3. China pledged to ban domestic ivory trade
After years of Government-sponsored ivory trade, in September 2015, China's President Xi Jinping made a huge announcement: That China would enact a "nearly complete ban" on the import and export of ivory. Representing the biggest step yet to shut down China's ivory industry, which has driven a rise in ivory poaching and is the largest market in the world, it followed a one year ban announced in February 2015 of African ivory imports, and laid down the gauntlet for restricting the import of ivory, as well as restricting domestic trade.
With a 3,000-year tradition of carving ivory, shutting down China's thriving ivory market won't be easy, but in December, a team of Chinese researchers began working on ban recommendations which they aim to share with delegates to the National People's Congress (China's legislature) in March 2016. Whilst questions remain as to whether China will implement a five-year ban, a ten-year ban or a permanent one, the research carried out by the Chinese themselves is an important first step
What could we expect?
We are hopeful that concrete action will be taken this year in China and Hong Kong - but any significant gap between the ban announcement and implementation could lead to speculation. The big question is: What will China do with its legal stockpile? Will we see a buy back policy enacted, a public destruction of stockpiles like the one carried out in Beijing in 2016 which crushed six tonnes, or will state owned stockpiles simply be stored? Whichever option, it is likely to be handled delicately, balancing commercial interests against an international commitment to ending trade.
There's also an implication for Hong Kong too. Recent reports have painted the special administrative region as a global hub for ivory, providing cover for smuggling and illicit sales. Following the US and Chinese pledges, in an non-binding vote, lawmakers in Hong Kong's Legislative Council unanimously passed a motion calling on the Hong Kong government to legislate for a commercial ban on ivory trading. Will it be enough to pressure the Hong Kong government to follow suit and halt the local ivory trade? We certainly hope so.
Gazing ever deeper into our crystal ball, here's just some of the big conservation topics and 'Big Questions' to look out for in 2016:
Rhino horn trade
The Big Question: Will the trade in rhino horn trade be legalised?
Currently, an international ban is in place, meaning South African farmers cannot trade with Vietnam or China, the principal markets for rhino horn. But in October 2015, a trade ban was over-turned by a South African court - the Government have since said they would appeal.
With unofficial figures suggesting upwards of 1,000 rhino have been killed in South Africa in 2015, it's expected that consumer and producer states will appeal for the international trade in rhino horn to be legalised at the 2016 CITES Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg. But until South Africa announce their positon on the issue, we can't be sure what the country, home to the largest population of white rhino and rhino farmers, will do.
The Big Question: Could the classification of elephants be changed?
Nearing completion, the Great Elephant Census funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul G. Allen, has counted elephant populations in 15 African countries. So far, the initial data analysis has shown that elephant numbers have increased in some African countries, whilst others have seen catastrophic losses.
The results from the count will be revealed at the forthcoming IUCN meeting, a body that determines whether species should be classified as threatened or endangered. With better data, it could make it easier to de-bunk false myths pedalled by states who claim they must sell their elephants in the face of over-population, and lead to proposals to change the classification of elephants in these states - which could leader to greater protection and stop unethical sales.
Illegal trade in wildlife
The Big Question: Will we see more ivory 'kingpins' arrested?
In 2015, we saw the first big arrest of an ivory kingpin. Dubbed the 'ivory queen,' Yang Feng Glan is accused of leading one of Africa's biggest ivory smuggling rings and smuggling ivory worth £1.62m. As law enforcement agencies step up in the face of increased international commitment to ending the illegal trade in wildlife, it is hoped we'll see more kingpins being taken down.
US Ivory trade bans
The Big Question: Will other US States introduce legislation to ban wildlife products?
In 2014 and 2015, we saw Washington, California, New York and New Jersey enact legislation that tightened loopholes, and led to nearly complete ivory bans. There's clearly more to be done in the US, the second largest market for ivory in the world, but will a need for a federal ban supersede state-wide efforts to enact individual bans?
What can you do in 2016 to help protect Africa's wildlife?
As our founder, Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick DBE once said: "All life has just one home - the earth - and we as the dominant species must take care of it." As its caretakers, here are a few things you can do to help keep Africa's wildlife safe for generations to come:
1. Call on CITES to stop all ivory and rhino horn sales by signing our petition at: www.iworry.org
2. Keep the momentum on your national government and local representatives to ban ivory sales by using our iworry campaign template letters here.
3. Support victims of the illegal trade in wildlife by fostering an orphan elephant in the care of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust at: www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org
4. Support on-the-ground efforts to protect elephants and rhinos by donating to one of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust's Anti-Poaching teams here.
Find out more about the work of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.