African elephants win protection near where exports for display began
GENEVA, Switzerland––Live elephant exports from Africa for exhibition at least nominally ended by plenary vote at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Triennial Conference of the Parties on August 27, 2019 in Geneva, Switzerland, about 200 miles north from where the first known live elephant export from Africa to Europe came to a sad and tragic end in 218 BCE.
The Carthaginian general Hannibal rafted 37 elephants across the Straits of Gibraltar and marched them north with his army through the Alps, calculating that the mere sight of charging elephants might cause the Roman infantry to break ranks and run. Success at the Battle of Trebbia, 50 miles south of modern day Milan, proved Hannibal right, but only one elephant survived the entire Alpine ordeal and ensuing invasion of Italy.
Intensified recent demand
The captive elephant exhibition industry has had somewhat more success over the past two centuries, but the captive African elephant population has aged and dwindled in the early 21st century, amid intensified global demand for elephants to be exhibited.
The British-based Born Free Foundation told CITES delegates that at least 1,774 wild African elephants have been exported for exhibition since 1990, the first year after CITES prohibited exports of elephant ivory.
The ban on live elephant exports passed by a margin of 87 to 29 with 25 abstentions. Each vote represents one CITES member nation.
European Union won exceptions
Reported Nina Larson of Agence France-Presse, “Following heated debate, the CITES member countries approved a proposed text after a revision by the European Union included some exceptions to the ban.
“The decision met with strong opposition from Zimbabwe in particular,” Larson said, “which along with Botswana is the main provider of wild African elephants to zoos outside of the continent and tried in vain to block the vote.”
Zimbabwe is known to have exported at least 100 wild-born African elephants since 2012, mostly to zoos in China.
eSwatini, formerly Swaziland, exported 17 wild-born African elephants to U.S. zoos in 2016. Recipients included the Dallas Zoo, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska.
U.S. zoos agreed to phase out the ankus
Just ahead of the CITES Triennial, the American Zoo Association sought to deflect criticism of exports of wild-born elephants to life in captivity by announcing a phase out of the use of the ankus, or “bullhook,” at accredited institutions.
The ankus, a tool known to Hannibal, is a stout stick with a hook at one end, used to push or pull elephants, usually by the back of the ear.
After decades of defending the use of the ankus as “an essential management tool,” AZA leadership voted unanimously to ban the ankus by 2021. Currently the ankus is used by about 30 of the 62 AZA-accredited zoos that still have elephants, of 236 member zoos altogether.
AZA zoos now have only an aging population of 305 elephants among them, down from more than 500 circa 2000.
Transfers from zoo to zoo still allowed
The vote on African elephant exports in plenary session “altered slightly a decision taken at the start of the 12-day conference,” wrote Agence France-Presse reporter Larson. “The European Union,” voting as a 28-member block, “had hinted that it might join the United States and others in flatly opposing the text.”
However, “In the end, the EU drafted an amended text,” Larson recounted, “adding a loophole, saying elephants should remain in their ‘natural and historical range in Africa, except in exceptional circumstances where … it is considered that a transfer to ex-situ locations will provide demonstrable in-situ conservation benefits for African elephants.’
“In such cases decisions should only be made in consultation with the CITES Animals Committee, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) elephant specialist group,” according to the amended text, Larson said.
“The EU amendment also made clear that African elephants caught in the wild and already in zoos could be transferred to other facilities outside of Africa,” Larson added.
Exports of wild-born Asian elephants to exhibition facilities has already long been prohibited by CITES.
Zoos are small factor in steep elephant decline
The African elephant population is known to have declined by about 110,000 over the past 10 years, to about 415,000 at the beginning of 2017.
More difficult to calculate is to what extent the losses are directly due to poaching, as opposed to other factors such as drought, fragmentation of habitat, and disintegration of herd structure. These factors are affected not only by poaching, but also by legal hunting, plus herd and land management practices.
Overall, elephant ivory poaching appears to account for about 10 times as many elephant deaths as legal hunting and herd management, and perhaps 1,000 times more losses of elephants from the wild as live captures to supply zoos.
Conservation case for elephant exhibition
A case can also be made, and was made during the run up to the 2019 CITES Triennial, that the exhibition of live elephants, including in China, helps to increase public appreciation of elephants, and thereby helps indirectly to cut into the already much eroded demand for elephant ivory.
The rise of live elephant exhibition in the U.S. and Europe during the 20th century coincided with a marked drop in elephant ivory use. This, however, was probably mostly due the simultaneous introduction of much less costly and equally durable plastic alternatives to the use of ivory in all common applications.
Chinese interest in ivory appears to have markedly waned as result of public awareness campaigns conducted by elephant advocates, including the now retired international basketball star Yao Ming. But Chinese interest in seeing live elephants may never have been greater, with often disturbing consequences that have repeatedly drawn global media notice.
Heads up for giraffes
The 12-day CITES Triennial, underway from August 17 to August 28, 2019, the eighteenth in the series of triennial meetings, considered a record 57 proposals affecting more than 550 highly traded species.
The headliners, after African elephants, included giraffes of all species and subspecies, rhinos, otters, sharks and rays, and sea horses.
CITES member nations on August 22, 2019 voted 106 to 21, with seven abstentions, to put giraffes of all species and subspecies on Appendix II of the CITES treaty, meaning that exports of either live giraffes or giraffe body parts will now have to be tracked and that export permits will now be required.
The world population of wild giraffes has fallen 40% in 30 years, to fewer than 68,000.
Zoo exports, bushmeat, leather, & trophies
The CITES action on giraffes, like the action on elephants, was partially driven by public concern over exports of giraffes to Chinese zoos, in particular the October 2017 export of 66 giraffes –– 44 females and 22 males –– from South Africa to zoos in Henan province, central China.
But exports for exhibition, also as with African elephants, account for only the smallest fraction of the losses of giraffes from the wild.
Giraffes have also been heavily poached for bushmeat and leather.
Meanwhile shooting giraffes for their heads and pelts has recently come into vogue among trophy hunters, mostly from the U.S., as giraffes have been the largest well-known and distinctive African species whose trophies are imported without restriction.
Safari Club defends giraffe hunting
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature red-listed all species of giraffes in 2016, meaning that they have become globally endangered in the wild.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April 2019 announced that an initial population status review had determined there is “substantial information that [an Endangered Species Act] listing may be warranted” for giraffes.
But Safari Club International immediately responded that it would oppose any move to halt imports of giraffe trophies.
The CITES motion to protect giraffes came jointly from giraffe range states including the Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Senegal.
Leading the opposition to the motion were South Africa, Botswana, and Tanzania, all of which have substantial giraffe trophy hunting industries.
Said CITES scientific services chief Tom De Meulenaer, “The giraffe is, in the wild, much rarer than African elephants. We are talking about a few tens of thousands of giraffes, and about a few hundreds of thousands of African elephants. So we need to be careful.”
Threw South Africa a bone
CITES member nations on August 19, 2019 threw South Africa a bone –– a black rhino bone –– by allowing South Africa to sell hunting rights to nine black rhinos per year, up from five.
About 5,000 black rhinos remain in the world, 2,000 of them in South Africa.
The South African proposal was opposed by Gabon and Kenya, but supported by Botswana, Zimbabwe, eSwatini, the European Union, the U.S., and Canada, all nations which either profit from trophy hunting or have substantial numbers of affluent and politically well-connected trophy hunters.
Six days later the CITES member nations voted down proposals from eSwatini and Namibia to reduce restrictions in effect since 1977 on trade in live white rhinos and white rhino parts.
Oh the sharks, babe!
On the same day, August 25, 2019, CITES member nations voted 102 to 40 in favor of a Mexican motion to add 18 threatened species of sharks and rays to Appendix I, meaning that they and their body parts may no longer be legally sold in international commerce.
The listing protects mako sharks, wedgefishes , and guitarfishes, among other shark and ray species that are endangered by Asian demand for shark fin soup. The Pew Charitable Trust estimates that anywhere from 63 million to 273 million sharks per year are killed by fishers who sell their fins.
Opposing the Appendix I listing for sharks and rays were China, Japan, and Malaysia, among major importing nations, along with Iceland, Japan, and New Zealand, which are major shark fishing nations.
Otters & seahorses
On August 26, 2019 the CITES delegates approved an Appendix I listing for Asian small-clawed and smooth-coated otters.
CITES members earlier voted unanimously to add all 44 seahorse species to Appendix I, protected on Appendix II since 2002.
Though trade in live and dried seahorses has fallen by 75% and 90%, respectively, since the Appendix II listing, the traffic is still believed to claim the lives of many millions of seahorses per year.
Sea horses are believed to be particularly vulnerable to hunting pressure because they have a low birth rate, are slow to mature, and fare poorly in degraded habitat.