The Great Elephant Debate


by Adam Roberts

In the two decades leading up to the 1989 international ban on commercialization of elephant ivory, the continent-wide African elephant population was cut in half. Now, almost ten years later, AWI and other conservation and animal protection organizations are forced to defend global elephant protection against those who wish to reopen the bloody ivory trade and subsequent elephant slaughter.

The focus of the global debate is whether or not Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)will stand firm against pressure from opponents of the current ban on commercial trade in African elephant products. Now is a pivotal time for deciding the elephant's future, as Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia are lobbying hard for CITES Parties to reduce African elephant protection when the tenth Conference of the Parties (COP10) convenes this June in Harare, Zimbabwe. African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are protected both internationally and in the US. CITES lists the species on Appendix I, which includes "all species threatened with extinction which are or may be affected by trade. "Commercial trade in Appendix I species is prohibited in most cases, but one of the current exceptions is sport-hunted African elephant trophies,which are legal with special permits. The US Endangered Species Act lists the species as "threatened," meaning that it is likely to become endangered if not protected. The 1988 African Elephant Conservation Act established a moratorium on importation into the US of ivory -- again,with exemptions for sport-hunted trophies.

Together, these protections helped stabilize elephant populations at roughly half a million, caused a dramatic decline in ivory prices, and simplified law enforcement and anti-poaching efforts. However, as scheming forces the world over work tirelessly to profit once more from dead elephants,poachers have increased elephant kills in order to "make a (financial)killing" should ivory again be sold legally in the global marketplace.

Prospective Poaching
Reports out of southern and eastern Africa show profiteers positioning themselves to reap enormous financial rewards should the ivory trade be reopened. One Reuters report from Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania noted that"police seized 143 elephant tusks on the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar bound for Thailand." Another report from Lusaka, Zambia, states that"Zambian police in Southern Province have smashed an organized ivory racket, impounding 56 elephant tusks and arresting three suspects. "And, news from Harare, Zimbabwe, is that a "North Korean diplomat was being questioned after he tried to smuggle 33 pieces of elephant ivory out of Zimbabwe."

These are just a few cases that have been uncovered. Who knows how many other shipments of ivory go undetected to willing ivory merchants? What is clear is that international movement of illegal ivory or at least attempts at such trans border shipments has started up again.

Zimbabwe, leader among the southern African ivory trade proponents,has probably the largest domestic ivory carving industry on the continent. According to a detailed report by the CITES Panel of Experts:

There is evidence that two dealers...[have] issued Certificates for large commercial quantities of worked ivory destined for export to a variety of countries, including Japan, China, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines,Indonesia, USA and South Africa. Some of the shipments were very large,including a single sale of seals valued at Z$ 919,113 (approximately US$90,000) to a Japanese customer and one destined for Thailand valued at Z$ 600,006. The ivory registers of the dealer involved indicated that during the month of April 1996 alone, he had sold ivory seals to Japanese customer scarved from 182 tusks, totalling 1.6 tonnes.

The Panel concluded that "this is a matter of serious concern"for a variety of reasons including the facts that Zimbabwe Customs officers failed to detect or prohibit these shipments and that the importing nations"appear to have failed to intercept these illegal imports of worked ivory."

Egregious violations of the current CITES prohibition indicate an inability,or at least unwillingness, among some CITES Parties, such as Zimbabwe,to adhere to the Convention. Moreover, it shows that wildlife law enforcement,as well as export and import restrictions, are flouted. A clear message from the CITES Parties that the ivory ban is non-negotiable is essential for reduction of poaching and smuggling.

Zimbabwe, Botswana, & Namibia
The original 1989 proposal to ban international commercial trade of ivory came from Tanzania and continues to be supported overwhelmingly by African range states. Prior to the 37th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, a special meeting was held in Dakar, Senegal "to provide the African elephant range States with an opportunity to consult each other on issues related to the conservation of the species."

One conclusion of the meeting, according to official CITES documents,is that "selling [ivory] through a legal system to international markets raised concerns, especially by a number of west African range States, about the stimulation of illegal trade and the negative impact this might have on some elephant populations." Despite this serious concern and having already failed at CITES meetings in Kyoto and Fort Lauderdale to downlist African elephants, a few southern African countries, led by Zimbabwe, will be making yet another attempt at COP10.

Together, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia are proposing down listing each of their elephant populations from Appendix I to Appendix II to allow export of tons of whole tusks from their stockpiles to Japan, one shipment in1998 and one in 1999; to export live animals to "appropriate and acceptable"destinations; to allow international trade in hunting trophies; and for Zimbabwe to allow international trade in elephant hides, leather articles and ivory souvenirs.

These proposals represent an obvious attempt to put a huge wedge in the door to ultimately opening the full-scale resumption of the ivory trade. The legalization of international commercial trade in ivory, regardless of its origin and destination, would provide a cover for illegal trade,and the resumption of any legal ivory trade would stimulate currently suppressed ivory markets worldwide. As was the case before the ivory ban, market demand would stimulate an illegal trade dependent on poached elephants.

Experts Question Controls
A CITES Panel of Experts was convened to investigate conditions related to elephant conservation in the countries involved in the downlisting proposal. The seven-member international panel spent two weeks last October traveling throughout Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, with a subsequent December trip to Japan, the proposed importing country for the stockpiled ivory. The 54-page detailed report sets forth numerous conclusions, including the following:


  • Controls over ivory stocks in Botswana are inadequate. It may not be possible to determine the origin of much of the ivory within the stockpile.
  • ... the Panel is unable to predict what psychological effect [from downlisting] on poachers and illegal traders in ivory will be.... The Botswana government does not have a clear policy on how to use the money, or mechanisms for ensuring transparency in the way that it is used.


  • ... the majority of Panel members believe that the large number of confiscations of ivory of Angolan origin provides circumstantial evidence that some ivory is moving through Namibia and this view is supported by the ESPU [Endangered Species Protection Unit] of South Africa.


  • Law Enforcement with respect to the ivory trade has been grossly inadequate. DNPWLM [Department of National Parks and Wild Life Management] has permitted the establishment of large-scale ivory carving operations, which are selling commercial quantities of semi-worked ivory intended for export to Asian countries, including Japan, People's Republic of China and Thailand.
  • Information from ESPU indicates that a large proportion of illegal ivory arriving in South Africa has passed through Zimbabwe.
  • Zimbabwe has poor control over trade in elephant products other than ivory.
  • The Zimbabwean government does not have a clear policy on how to use the money from sale of government-owned ivory, or mechanisms for ensuring transparency in the way that it is used.


  • The control of retail trade is not adequate to differentiate the products of legally acquired ivory from those of illegal sources.

Based on the Panel's report one can conclude that although elephant populations in a few African countries may be stable and adequate monitoring may exist, sufficient trade controls and regulatory enforcement mechanisms-- especially in Zimbabwe -- are not in place. If the downlisting is granted,it is likely that African elephants will once again be slaughtered and the products, including ivory, laundered along with existing stock-piles. Ultimately, if the ivory trade is completely reopened at a future CITES meeting, the elephant will again fall prey to the poachers' high-powered rifles, and populations of this magnificent species throughout the continent will resume the dramatic decline that initially led to strong international protection.

Sitting Around the Smoldering CAMPFIRE
It is not only the Zimbabwean government that is supporting a renewed elephant slaughter. Today, the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) and the well-funded Africa Resources Trust(ART) have joined forces with Safari Club International to facilitate elephant killing and the CITES downlisting.

According to CAMPFIRE's own published literature, "it seeks to restructure the control of Zimbabwe's countryside, giving people alternative ways of using their natural resources." This benign description belies the fact that CAMPFIRE exerts strong pressure to exploit elephants for their valuable ivory.

Creating sustainably functioning African communities is a praiseworthy goal. In fact, CAMPFIRE recognizes some acceptable wildlife-based, non-consumptive industries including "rafting the rapids of the wild Zambezi, viewing the Victoria Falls, trekking in wilderness areas, climbing the mysterious mountains of Chimanimani." CAMPFIRE also advocates community-based tourism, where rural communities host tourists themselves, cultural tourism where "tourists experience the local culture through sharing traditional foods, music and lifestyle," and traditional ecotourism industries,including bird-watching and exotic wildlife viewing. All of these are laudable mechanisms for advancing a self-sustaining community and profiting from natural resources without destroying them.

However, CAMPFIRE literature states that 90% of its income is derived from trophy hunting of elephants. Make no mistake, this is not only about allowing a handful of wealthy Americans or Europeans the opportunity to have an African safari and bring back an elephant trophy. It is about full-scale resumption of the ivory trade. Tawona Tavengwa of the CAMPFIRE Association admitted as much: "Zimbabwe, largely on behalf of CAMPFIRE, is leading the campaign to re-open the ivory trade."

The major contention of CAMPFIRE and Zimbabwe is that reopening the ivory trade would provide much-needed revenue to impoverished villagers. Of course, if Mr. Tavengwa is accurate in suggesting that CAMPFIRE "has been making a lot of money... $13.2 million in 1995," one must wonder why such a successful program needs a reopened ivory trade at all. Moreover,as the Panel of Experts noted, there is no guarantee that money made from ivory sales will get from the government to local communities. This was not the case prior to the ivory ban, and there is no reason to believe that it will be true now. Given the potential for governmental corruption in Zimbabwe (see "CAMPFIRE's Richest District Goes Broke," AWI Quarterly , Spring/Summer 1996) such financial disbursements are unlikely.

In a December 1996 report, the Zimbabwean Parliament concluded that Zimbabwe's DNPWLM is "riddled by corruption, infighting and jealousy"and that there exists a "management crisis" within the department. This is hardly a sound vote of confidence for Zimbabwe's ability to prevent illegal elephant killings and appropriately distribute funds from such slaughter to communities in need of financial assistance. According to Dr. Teresa Telecky of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) who has helped lead the defense of the ivory ban, an independent evaluator was hired by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)to assess CAMPFIRE's effectiveness. Dr. Telecky reports: the "evaluator found that the project is 'notoriously weak in its environmental assessment of potential impacts resulting from the project'; that local governments kept most of the revenue rather than giving it to the people; and that the project's approach is 'subject to collapse once donor financing is withdrawn.'" Part of this "donor financing" actually includes grant money from USAID itself. Dr. Telecky noted further that "CAMPFIRE earns far less from trophy hunting (approximately US$2 million per annum)than it gains in foreign aid from the US government and other governments(at least US$5 million per annum from the US alone)."

USAID -- Your Tax Dollars at Work
The money that USAID spends on the CAMPFIRE program, which will balloon to almost $30 million by 1999, is presumably used to fund a variety of programs. These include promoting trophy hunting of African elephants and lobbying to lift the international ivory ban. As noted above, it is doubtful that this money is being used wisely, efficiently, or in an equable manner among districts throughout Zimbabwe.


"Appendix I has raised hope for elephant populations."; -M.M. Lyimo, Chief Law Enforcement Officer, Wildlife Department, Tanzania

"Poaching of elephants has all but stopped, the price of ivory is at an all time low and public attitudes in support of elephant conservation are very high indeed." -Richard Leakey, Former Director, Kenya Wildlife Service

"Appendix I listing has greatly reduced cross-border trade in ivory. It has also caused the poaching of elephants to decline." -Moses Okua, Chief Game Warden, Uganda

"The Appendix I listing... has contributed to the level of awareness for both government institutions and the community, with benefits to species preservation." -Manuel Enoch, Chief of Department of Parks and Reserves, Angola

"No doubt about it, elephants are worth far more alive than dead." -Norbert Mumba, former head of the Zambian Species Protection Department

HSUS notes that "for every dollar the US government puts in, CAMPFIRE earns only 52 cents in income. Of the 52 cents earned by the program, only5 are returned to villages, while the rest are retained by the Zimbabwean government's Rural District Councils, national and district governments."

Perhaps most egregious, though, is the fact that USAID gives a considerable sum of money, American tax-payer dollars, to an independent organization named Africa Resources Trust (ART). The four year budget for ART -- just from USAID -- is $2,436,689! ART uses the money to publish criticisms against humane and conservation organizations, as well as CITES itself, and to print materials promoting the resumption of the ivory trade.

According to the June 1995 "Plan of Operations" for the "Natural Resources Management Project (NRMP) Phase II - Zimbabwe," ART's "outputs"are to include promotion of international markets for CAMPFIRE products such as ivory by developing "regional and international support networks for CAMP-FIRE" and to keep "key decision-makers, media, NGOs and academic communities in USA, selected countries of Europe, and Africain formed and influenced." Basically, US money goes to ART for international lobbying to promote the ivory trade. This is particularly reprehensible since a US policy and the great majority of US citizens do not support international commercial ivory trade, but an agency of the US government,USAID, is using millions of dollars of American taxpayer money to fund organizations that promote resumption of the global ivory trade! Also,recent poll revealed that 84% of the American public opposed the federal government providing funds to aid trophy hunting of elephants and other wildlife.

Furthermore, according to the ART "Activities" list for the period 1995-1999, money will be used to secure offices and recruit staff in the United Kingdom, Brussels, Washington, DC, and South Africa; produce and publish CAMPFIRE and ART brochures, "fact sheets, books, booklets and position papers"; "identify and influence up to 100 key individuals";and "hold briefing seminars... in USA, Europe and Africa." The most succinct irony may have come from recent comments by David Hales,Director of USAID's Global Environment Center: "No one is fightingto lift the ban on ivory," Mr. Hales claims. Interesting. The Zimbabwean newspaper the Citizen reported on December 26, 1996, that "CAMPFIRE has called for the ban on ivory trading to be lifted." Moreover, Taparendava Maveneke of the CAMPFIRE association said in the April 1996, CAMPFIRE NEWS,"National and international legislations [sic] must be supportive of free trade in ivory and elephant products." Maybe Mr. Hales and USAID should rethink their position on ART, CAMPFIRE and the ivory trade before making any more statements on the subject—at least before making any more huge financial expenditures.

Zoo Atlanta's Dr. Terry Maple, testifying on behalf of the African Elephant Conservation Act, said, "In 1990, I visited a site in Kenya's Tsavo National Park,where two adults and one baby elephant were butchered by poachers. Poachers had cutoff their faces to remove their tusks. I had never witnessed an uglier act of genocide."

No Blood Money
In addition to ecotourism-based approaches, such as non-consumptive wildlife tourism and cultural tourism within local communities, there are some other ways to help elephants and impoverished African communities.

Much of the money devoted to CAMPFIRE, ART and Safari Club International for direct and indirect support of elephant trophy hunting and promotion of the ivory trade could be redirected to promoting and marketing ecotourism and the sustainable cottage industries that will develop as increasing numbers of foreign tourists visit southern Africa. These burgeoning new wildlife-based ventures include such innovative ideas as making paper from elephant dung. Kenyan native and conservationist Mike Bugara discovered that the dung can be boiled, soaked, pressed, and sun-dried into raw paper. The New Scientist reports that the Kenya Wildlife Service has "commissioned him to produce elephant dung invitation cards for the wildlife service's50th anniversary celebrations this year along with a special map of Kenya for presentation to the country's president." The Wildlife Society of Malawi and Paper Making Education Trust have collaborated to make elephant dung paper, envelopes and other items with the money going back into elephant conservation.

Additionally, innovative programs are underway to minimize the human-elephant conflict that sometimes arises because of a stable elephant population and booming human population. For instance, the International Fund for Animal Welfare has donated over $2 million to the National Parks Boardin South Africa to purchase land which can be used for relocation of elephants from areas where their concentration is too great. Additionally, HSUS has undertaken an extensive research program on immunocontraception to minimize the impact of human/elephant conflict.

None of these may be the single answer to the global elephant debate,but together they can contribute to a peaceful and prosperous existence for Africans and African elephants.

AWI Quarterly Winter 1997, Volume 46 Number 1, p. 10-11