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March 17, 2010

Elephants Up for Debate Again

Humane Society International

  • Targeted for their tusks. © Josh Webb/iStockphoto

Update: March 22, 2010: In a win for conservation, permission to trade ivory stockpiles was denied.

The triennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is taking place right now in Doha, Qatar. Representatives from countries all over the world have come together to discuss proposals that would add or remove international protection for a variety of wild animals. African elephants (Loxodonta africana), who are killed for trade in their ivory tusks, have been the center of heated debate at CITES since the 1970s. Once again, several proposals regarding this species will be up for debate. Tanzania and Zambia are proposing to transfer their elephant populations from CITES Appendix I to Appendix II and asking to be permitted to sell their government-owned stockpiled ivory. Meanwhile, a group of six African countries—Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone and the Republic of Congo—have proposed a new deal: no ivory trade proposals for 20 years from any African country.

The largest land animal

Elephants are one of the world's most recognizable land animals, partially due to their large size, but also because they are amazing and highly intelligent creatures. They can be found in the wild on only two continents: Africa and Asia. The African elephant can measure up to 30 feet in length and 13 feet in height, surviving up to 70 years in the wild. Being the largest of all land animals requires that they spend about three-quarters of their day eating in order to maintain their massive bodies. All African elephants grow tusks, the equivalent to incisor teeth. These tusks can grow to be more than nine feet long and are used for removing bark, digging for roots, and as weapons.

Studies have shown that elephants live in tight-knit family groups, with the females and calves living together and the males living together nearby. The whole herd takes part in rearing each calf. Such strong emotional bonds are created between a mother elephant and her calf that if the calf is killed, the mothers have been known to guard the body and mourn for many days.

A never-ending debate

In 1989, CITES effectively banned the international commercial trade in ivory from African elephants by placing them on Appendix I. Despite seeing some success from this ban, resurgence in the illegal ivory trade, combined with habitat loss and conflict with humans is taking a heavy toll on elephant populations. Illegal markets for ivory are being fueled by several CITES approved exports of stockpiled ivory from a handful of African countries.

At the last CITES meeting, in 2007, a nine-year ivory moratorium was widely-supported and approved with the idea that elephants would be off the table and no further trade proposals would be made for this time period. This "resting period" would give countries the time to work on stronger enforcement for poaching and illegal trade, as well as time to monitor the effects of the moratorium on illegal trade. This year's proposals from Tanzania and Zambia completely undermine the spirit of this agreement, and render this valuable compromise entirely ineffective. If they are accepted, they may set a precedent for further downlisting proposals at the next CITES meeting in 2013. The widely-supported "resting period" will, in effect, never have happened.

Illegal ivory trade and elephant poaching are at their highest levels since the 1989 ban was established. An international trade ban without any exception on international ivory trade and the closure of domestic markets for ivory are needed to protect elephants. By allowing the international ivory trade to continue through occasional exports, CITES has turned a blind eye to poaching and illegal trade that threatens this species. Strong actions must be taken to bring poaching and illegal trade under control if elephants are to be saved.

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