Botswana's change of heart scuttles bid to revive ivory trade

Botswana, which has the world's largest elephant population and had previously supported limited trade in ivory, now seeks to provide elephants with the highest levels of protection.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters/File
A Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) ranger stacks elephant tusks, part of an estimated 105 tonnes of confiscated ivory to be set ablaze, on a pyre at Nairobi National Park near Nairobi, Kenya on April 20, 2016.

Botswana, the country with the world's largest elephant population, announced its full support for a ban on ivory trading on Monday at a conference for the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The announcement came on the same day that member states of CITES voted to reject proposals by Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell and export ivory, reflecting a growing push to protect elephants in Africa. 

Speaking on Monday, Tshekedi Khama, Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, said there is "a clear and growing global consensus that the ivory trade needs to be stopped if elephants are to be conserved effectively," as National Geographic reports. 

At the start of the 20th century, there were as many as 3 to 5 million African elephants, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Now, there are around 415,000. About 30,000 are killed each year as part of the ivory trade, and the population of savanna elephants has dropped by 30 percent in the past seven years, according to the Great Elephant Census. 

"African elephants are in steep decline across much of the continent due to poaching for their ivory, and opening up any legal trade in ivory would complicate efforts to conserve them," said Ginette Hemley, the head of the CITES delegation for WWF, to Reuters. "It could offer criminal syndicates new avenues to launder poached ivory." 

But while the committee rejected proposals for reviving the legal ivory trade, it also failed to pass a separate proposal that would have given all elephants the highest level of international protection, a move that would permanently rule out any possibility of a legal ivory trade. 

Some have argued that a legal trade could actually help elephants by giving rural communities economic incentive to protect elephants, rather than viewing them as an annoyance or threat. This may lead to greater conservation efforts and habitat protection, proponents say. 

"The most effective strategy is to integrate elephants into rural communities as assets and to demonstrate that elephants contribute to welfare and development," said a representative from Namibia, according to National Geographic. 

But opponents of the legal trade point to recent studies, one of which found that a one-time, legal ivory sale in 2008 led to increased poaching of elephants. Another study concluded that reviving the legal ivory trade would cause elephants to go extinct more quickly

"Ivory belongs to the elephants and ivory is worth more on a live animal rather than a dead animal," Kenyan Environment Minister Judi Wakhungu said on Monday. 

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