Africa's Natural Heritage - Wanted Dead or Alive?

CITES COP 13, Bangkok, Thailand, October 2-14, 2004

The African lion (Panthera leo) is quite literally under the gun. There may be as few as 16,500 African lions left, with some national populations in West Africa already extinct. Kenya, in an effort to protect lions from further decline as a result of international trade, is proposing that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) move the African lion from Appendix II to Appendix I, thus prohibiting international trade for primarily commercial purposes (see box).

Trophies, skins, and live lions have been exported in recent years, primarily from Botswana, South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Lion parts such as the bones and fat are also used in Africa in traditional medicines. The United States in particular is a huge importer of lion trophies, allowing some 350 specimens to enter the country in 2002 alone.

According to the most recent IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the African lion is also declining "due to habitat and prey base loss and persecution." It is considered "Vulnerable" by IUCN-The World Conservation Union, indicating a high risk of extinction in the wild with no subpopulation containing more than 1,000 mature individuals.

And while Kenya, a vocal and vital defender of threatened and endangered species, fights to increase protection for lions, the Kenyan delegation will have to rally global support to defeat yet another effort by a minority of southern African nations to open up international trade in elephant parts and products.

Namibia is proposing to export an annual quota of 2,000 kg of raw ivory, and commercially trade worked ivory products and goods made from elephant hides and hair. South Africa wants to trade commercially in elephant leather goods.

Namibia claims an estimated elephant population of 11,262 animals; it further claims that "the absence of trade [is] the greatest threat to elephant populations in the region." Yet in Namibia's own proposal it presents a graph depicting a steady increase in the national population estimate beginning in 1990, the year that the CITES Appendix I listing took effect for African elephants, banning commercial trade in ivory. Clearly, the absence of trade has helped Namibia's elephant population to increase.

Poaching and illegal trade in elephant parts and products remain a continent-wide problem, taxing wildlife law enforcement agencies who spend significant sums and risk individual warden's lives to protect their elephants. Elephant ivory—whether raw or worked—and other elephant parts should remain taboo. Neither international commercial buyers nor tourists on African safari should be permitted to purchase these products, risking a return to the days of the 1970s and 1980s when the African elephant population plummeted—from 1.3 million animals to 600,000. CITES should not risk encouraging poaching or national culling to supply a rekindled market demand for elephant parts.

Another charismatic African species, the southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum), is also at risk. Swaziland is requesting permission to transfer its white rhinos from Appendix I to Appendix II to allow trade in live animals and hunting trophies.

Swaziland's population of white rhinos is terribly small—only 61 individual animals—and is restricted to a very small habitat area. It is unclear how many animals Swaziland would hope to export each year, but any off-take of the national population could prove dangerous to its long-term viability. If another "Rhino War," such as the one that took place between 1988 and 1992, were to strike again, Swaziland's white rhinos could be wiped out beyond recovery. During that four-year period, Swaziland lost 80% of its white rhinos according to Swaziland's own proposal, resulting in an historic 20-year low of 27 animals in 1993.

Swaziland's proposal notes the existence of an established eco-tourism industry there, "and both black and white rhino are a major draw card for this industry…. Swaziland's white rhino are already helping to fund their own conservation." We agree. Wildlife viewing industries can bring economic support to the people who live with wildlife and help fund wildlife protection measures—without the need to use the ill-conceived concept of slaughtering individual threatened or endangered wild animals to protect the populations.