Namibian officials say disclosing purchasers might jeopardize the deal
WINDHOEK, Namibia––Who bought 170 elephants, auctioned off by the Namibian government against international law, despite months of protest?
Suspicion is growing that Namibia will not disclose the elephants’ buyers until the elephants have already been flown to their destinations, probably Chinese zoos, the buyers of 144 elephants sold with similar secrecy by Zimbabwe in multiple transactions since 2012.
The Facebook page “Elephant Lovers” on March 3, 2021 posted a 38-second video of a frantic baby elephant said to be searching for his mother in Etosha National Park, Namibia, close to the area from which the 170 auctioned elephants were to have been captured, according to Nambian government statements. But ANIMALS 24-7 researcher Beth Clifton discovered that the video was an excerpt from a longer video posted in 2012, in which the baby found his mother.
“Five bids. No other information made public”
“The environment ministry said it has received five bids for the sale of 170 elephants,” reported Ellanie Smit for the Namibian Sun on March 3, 2021, 32 days after the bidding closed.
“No other information has been made public,” Smit wrote, “although the tender was advertised publicly and the information should be made public, as per the public procurement laws.”
Namibian environment ministry spokesperson Romeo Muyunda would not even tell Smith “whether the bids were from local or international buyers,” she continued.
Department of Natural Resources Management deputy executive director Colgar Sikopo told Smit only “that the ministry could not share more information,” Smit added, “as it may jeopardize the sale.”
“The obvious market is China”
The New Era newspaper and web site, owned by the Namibian government, and on December 3, 2020 the first media to announce the elephant auction, offered no further clues.
“By going ahead with the sale,” declared Political Animal Lobby staff writer Melissa Reitz in Business Day on February 26, 2021, “Namibia is flouting Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species regulations,” which require “that elephants must not be exported beyond their natural and historical range states.
Observed Windhoek-based veteran environmental investigative journalist John Grobler, “The obvious market for these elephants is China. Or hunters. No game farms are going to buy these animals.”
“Much global condemnation”
“Live elephant sales in southern Africa have previously – and justifiably – caused much global condemnation,” observed Journal of African Elephants editor Adam Cruise and Amboseli Trust for Elephants conservation biologist Keith Lindsay in a February 3, 2021 jointly written statement.
“Zimbabwe has snatched around 144 juvenile wild elephants from its largest National Park, Hwange, since 2012 and sold them to zoos in China; Swaziland sold 11 to a group of American zoos in 2003 and an additional 18 in 2016; and Namibia itself has previously sold 24 elephants to Mexico and Cuba in 2012 and 2013 respectively,” Cruise and Lindsay explained.
In addition, in June 2017 the Namibian government authorized Swedish citizen Johan Hansen to capture and export five wild young elephants from his Eden Wildlife Game Farm to the Dubai Safari Park.
“Lack of conservation value”
“The lack of conservation value, welfare and other concerns surrounding these sales prompted the 18th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora [CITES],” held in 2019, “to forbid further exports of live elephants from sub-Saharan Africa,” Cruise and Lindsay noted.
“A key concern for the majority of countries was clearly the suffering of elephants in the barren living conditions of foreign zoos and safari parks, in stark contrast to the richness of their natural range,” Cruise and Lindsay said.
Of further concern to the CITES elephant range states was that Namibia in 2015 was the only range state to refuse participation in the largest-ever census of African elephant populations. The Namibian government contended that the elephant count was part of an animal rights activist plot to interfere with ivory sales, trophy hunting, and exports of live elephants.
Namibian government defends deal
The secretive elephant transaction now underway has been vehemently defended by the Namibian government, even as Namibian officials have concealed almost every relevant detail, and have visibly misrepresented many of the “facts” that have nominally been disclosed.
Teofilus Nghitila, for instance, executive director of the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry & Tourism, on February 11, 2021 told Arlana Shikongo of The Namibian that “There are more elephants in Namibia today than at any [given] time in the past 100 years.”
“According to him,” wrote Shikongo, “removing 170 elephants amounts to less than 1% of the country’s elephant population of approximately 24 000. The population is reportedly growing at 5% per year.”
The elephant auction was also vigorously endorsed on March 2, 2021 by Gail C. Thomson of Conservation Namibia, who recited the same claims made earlier by Teofilus Nghitila.
“The real elephant in the room”
Responded Grobler, on March 5, 2021, “The real elephant in the room here is the true number of elephants left in Namibia.”
Grobler pointed out first that official Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry & Tourism elephant population estimate is 22,000, 2,000 fewer than Teofilus Nghitila claimed.
But even that, Grobler continued, “is not a figure supported in even the remotest way by the presence of elephant herds numbering in the thousands, as one would expect to see. It is also not supported by any drastic increase in reported human/elephant conflict cases, as one would expect of a three-fold increase in both the human and elephant populations since 1995.”
The claim that Namibia has 22,000 elephants, Grobler explained, “is a downward revision of a higher 2018 estimate of 24,000 to 25,000 elephants,” a figure that Colgar Sikopo, then director of wildlife and parks, “wrote was based on an estimated 1995 base population of 7,000 elephants that increased at a steady 3.3 percent per annum.”
Trophy hunters shot elephant cows due to lack of bulls
Recalled Grobler, “This did not include any trans-frontier herds, Mr Sikopo stated,” who wander back and forth between Nambia, Angola, Botswana, and South Africa.
Sikopo did, however, “admit in the same statement that in 2017, the Ministry had allowed professional hunters to shoot elephant cows in order to recover trophy fees paid to communal conservancies in the Zambezi,” Grobler alleged.
“The reason, he conceded, was that the hunters could not find any mature bulls to hunt in a (claimed) population of over 19,000 elephants.”
Observed Grobler, “A population of 7,000 elephants increasing at an uninterrupted––if zoologically implausible––exponential growth rate of 3.3 percent per annum” would amount to only 16,282 elephants by 2021.
“Something that can be turned into cash”
“Truth is,” charged Grobler, “the South-West Africa People’s Organization-led government,” ruling Namibia since 1990, “sees elephants only as something that be turned into a source of cash. Pohamba Shifeta,” the Nambian Minister of Environment & Tourism since 2015, “has repeatedly threatened to ignore CITES regulations and sell Namibia’s ivory stockpile on the open market.”
Notably, Shifeta “said this during a keynote address at the opening of the national elephant conservation and management plan consultative workshop in Windhoek,” the national capital, reported Arlana Shikongo of The Namibian on November 20, 2020.
Said Shifeta then, “The most important incentive [for elephant conservation], namely the value that can be generated from trade in ivory, is currently severely compromised by the actions of animal rights groups who have influenced decisions by CITES that undermine Namibia’s conservation programs. For how long this is going to be the case is unclear, but our tolerance is being severely tested.”
“Wants to allow more trophy hunting”
Namibia in 2019 joined with Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia in asking CITES to end the ban on international trade in elephants and elephant body parts that has been in effect since 1989.
Shifeta also “wants to allow more trophy hunting,” observed Nyasha Nyaungwa of the Reuters news service. In October 2020,” Nyasha Nyaungwa remembered, Shifeta “put 70 female and 30 male buffalos from Waterberg Plateau Park in central Namibia up for sale,” ostensibly “to ease pressure on grazing land.”
Shifeta “also auctioned 1,000 animals from national parks, including 500 buffalos, in 2019,” Nyaungwa added, as Namibia “faced the worst drought in a century.”
Game Products Trust Fund as cash cow
Wrote Grobler, “Communal farmers were suffering massive losses to the elephants and threats to their lives, and their numbers had to be reduced and those farmers compensated, Shifeta and his officials insisted,” when the elephant auction was announced.
“The proceeds of this auction would thus be paid to the Game Products Trust Fund to compensate those who had suffered financial losses due to human-elephant conflict, Shifeta said.
“The Game Products Trust Fund has dispensed millions of dollars since its creation in 1999,” Grobler observed, “but no recent financial statements have been published, with the first and last audit done in 2009 for the previous ten years.
“It is however the Ministry’s biggest cash cow,” Grobler alleged, “receiving all proceeds from, for example, auctioning off hunts of specially protected black rhinos. It is thus a key political tool at the grassroots level for dispensing patronage.”
Pointed out Grobler “Official 2020 Human/Wildlife Conflict data showed that of 824 cases reported, 813 cases (98.6%) were predator-related, a sure sign of over-hunting of game in communal areas.”
According to Shifeta himself, “One person was injured by a baboon, six by buffaloes, one by an elephant, one by a hippo, three by leopards and two by lions,” plus two killed by crocodiles.”
Continued Grobler, “Elephants caused crop damage to 3,346 hectares of communal farm land in 2020. Asked to explain how just one reported case of human/elephant conflict caused so much crop damage – was that one farm, one incident? – Shifeta angrily retorted that such questions would get one beaten up.”
A more logical response from Shifeta would have been to point out that not all cases of wildlife damaging crops and farm property result in injuries reported to the Human/Wildlife Conflict injury data base.
Grobler went on to observe that Thomson in her defense of the elephant auction misdated a 2019 incident in which elephants damaged some farm water installations, and neglected to mention that while two young bull elephants did most of the damage, “the ministry used the incident to have the patriarchal bull known as Voortrekker hunted as a problem elephant.”
Voortrekker, coincidentally, was reputedly the most photographed elephant in Nambia, with the biggest tusks.
“Almost all communal water points in the northwest,” home of the 170 elephants who were auctioned, “have been elephant-proofed by a local volunteer tourism organization by building protective walls around the water points over the past 15 years,” Grobler continued.
Contrary to Thomson’s claim that elephants are destroying 180 windmills per year in the Namibian northwest, Grobler said, “There is no evidence that 180 windmills were destroyed in any past year, never mind every year.
“Opening up more areas to cattle”
“It should be noted,” Grobler said, “that this tender to capture 170 elephants was issued barely two weeks after the ruling South-West Africa People’s Organization suffered heavy losses in the regional and local elections of November 2020, losing two-thirds of their previous vote and political control over Windhoek and most other major towns and local councils.
“They however retained their seats in the rural areas––and it is this constituency that the South-West Africa People’s Organization is courting by opening up more areas to cattle farming by removing the elephants.”
Grobler calculated from a variety of Namibian government statements about elephant numbers in the capture area that there are now only “3,129 to 4,129 free-roaming elephants in Namibia, excluding the huge claimed Zambezi elephant herds that most likely are part of the trans-frontier populations.”
“Corruption is now as big a threat to elephants as poaching”
Shifeta defended his record in wildlife conservation by pointing toward poaching statistics pertaining to rhinos and elephants.
“In 2020,” Shifeta said, “we recorded a total of 31 rhinos poached, compared to 52 in 2019, 81 in 2018, 55 in 2017, 66 in 2016 and 97 in 2015.”
Added Shifeta, “Namibia recorded a total of 11 elephants poached in 2020, 13 in 2019, 27 in 2018, 50 in 2017, 101 in 2016, and 49 in 2015,” his first year as Minister of Environment & Tourism.
But poaching numbers can as easily decline as result of declining wildlife populations as from more effective anti-poaching efforts.
Observed Mark Hiley, operations director of the Zimbabwe-based conservation organization National Park Rescue, to Mongabay writer Michael Schwartz, “Falsifying elephant population statistics and exaggerating human-wildlife conflict can be used by governments to generate revenue from inflated hunting quotas, justify sales to zoos or hunting farms, and initiate ivory-generating culls.”
“Corruption,” Hiley said, “is now as big a threat to elephants as poaching.”
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