Gentleman’s Agreement and the Future of the African Elephant

Written by Wei JI an Independent wildlife researcher who provides advice to the Chinese government.

Ten years ago, in June 2007, Chad and Zambia proposed a complex package of African elephant trade regulations. Essentially, the two countries proposed a one-off sale of ivory in return for a “9-year moratorium” on sellers’ ivory sales thereafter.

The one-off auction was completed in November 2008. Four African elephant populations — Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe — sold 101.7 tons of ivory from registered Government-own stocks. The buyers were from China and Japan and they paid USD15.4 million. Since then, an effective ban on the international commercial trade of ivory has been in effect. In October 2016, after several serious delays and extensions, a vote to extend the decision-making mechanism for future ivory trade was defeated. In November 2017, the 9-year moratorium expired.

We must bear in mind that when a species or population is listed in Appendix II of the CITES treaty, that species or population is not necessarily threatened with extinction in biological terms. Rather, commercial trade is allowed so long as it does not have a detrimental impact on the survival of the species. This applies to most Appendix II-listed species. However, the African elephant is a very special case. It is distributed unevenly among 37 African countries and is split-listed in both Appendices I and II. The 4 Appendix II-listing range states hold at least 250,000 African elephants out of 410,000 in total, while 33 Appendix I-listing range states hold around 160,000 African elephants.

Each and every time a discussion is conducted on whether to allow commercial ivory trade to resume, a hot and polarized debate occurs. In the hope of avoiding such a debate, the 2007 mechanism is proposed for use again— a one-off sale followed by a 9-year moratorium thereafter. If the four range states would have known that the mechanism would end up being disapproved in the future, the original compromise might not have been made. In short, the 9-year moratorium and one-off sale should be regarded as a symbiotic relationship to live and die together.

As a gentleman’s agreement, the four range states fulfilled their promises for a 9-year moratorium. However, an effective ban on raw ivory trade is still in place, waiting for new proposals to change matters in 2019 at the next Conference of the Parties of the CITES treaty.

The problem with the continuation of the moratorium, even though it was supposed to end, is that Appendix II-listing African elephant populations have to be conserved in a manner applying to Appendix I African elephant populations in terms of ivory trade.

In practice, wildlife conservation efforts should be made at population levels rather than species level. The management of an endangered population is definitely different from the management of an over-populated one. It is quite unfortunate that all elephant populations, no matter what status they may be in, are treated in the same way, essentially supporting the effective ban on ivory.

Since 1977, elephants and ivory have gone through stages:

Overall regulated commercial trade (1977-1989, all in Appendix II); an overall ban on commercial trade (1990-1997, all in Appendix I); and an effective ban on commercial trade (1998-to present with a split-list between Appendix I and Appendix II with annotations).

However, the fate of different populations of African elephants has become difficult. Some are increasing with virtually no poaching threat, while some are decreasing due to poaching. It is noteworthy that the four Appendix II populations grew in numbers much more robustly than the thirty-three Appendix I populations over the last forty years.

As a result, we are unfortunately missing an important and logical situation where some regulated commercial trade could occur together with some ban on commercial trade (split-list in Appendix I and Appendix II without annotations).

In this situation, each and every African elephant range state could determine their own intentions without interference from outsiders and without interfering with each other. Each and every African elephant state could choose the best way to deal with its own populations according to their conservation needs. I sincerely hope this situation could come to fruition in the near future.