The Elephant in the Room – CITES

The views, opinions and position expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy and position of Save the Elephants

Report written by our International Intern, Acacia Jennings

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) forms international agreements that regulate plant and animal trade. Its purpose is to ensure that the trade of wild animals and plants is sustainable and their long-term survival is not at risk. Countries enter into the convention voluntarily as parties. For these parties, CITES is legally binding, meaning parties have to enforce domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at a national level in their respective countries. The convention is held every 3 years to review trade agreements. The present trade proposals were supposed to be reviewed between May 22nd and June 3rd of this year at the Conference of the Parties. CITES was to be hosted in Colombo, Sri Lanka. However, following the tragic events that occurred this Easter, the convention will take place in Geneva, Switzerland, between 17th and 28th August. This convention has the power to condemn a species to extinction or bring a species back from the brink.

CITES presently protects around 5,800 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants. Species are classified into three Appendices. Appendix I includes species threatened by extinction. Appendix II includes species that are not particularly at risk of extinction, but those that without the necessary regulation could be exploited to levels incompatible with their survival. Lastly, Appendix III contains species that are protected in more than one country and that have asked CITES for assistance regulating trade. Appendix III differs as parties are able to make independent amendments.

Basically, international trade of a species is subjected to certain controls; import, export, re-export, etc. must be authorized. The convention is populated by contradicting opinions and politics. For some parties, exporting flora or fauna presents an opportunity to escape poverty and for the importers, it provides the avenue of bringing in exotic pets, medicines, meat and/or ornaments. For conservationists around the world, CITES is crucial to preventing the exploitation of unsustainable animal populations and extinctions. CITES presents an opportunity to forge alliances, uniting an influential combination of governments, scientists and non-governmental organizations with shared goals of stopping trade and conserving African Elephants and threatened species across the globe.

Interestingly, every party possesses an equal say. So for example, if Australia wishes to downlist their endemic population of Echidna from Appendix II to Appendix III, Australia’s vote carries equal weighting to, Kenya’s. This is where party alliances and politics become difficult. Powerful countries often form alliances and bully co-dependent countries, such as their trade partners, into voting with them.

CITES’ control over animal trade prevents the devastation that could occur if natural forces of supply and demand were given the opportunity to play out. That said, CITES’ regulation is limited to international trade. It does not regulate the internal domestic trade of a species.

Let’s focus more specifically on the implications of CITES on African elephants. For many countries in Africa, elephants and other exotic wildlife fuel tourism and uncoincidentally, their economies. African elephants are a keystone species and ecosystem engineers. Without them, there would be ecosystem collapse, posing threats to an abundance of co-dependent species. Elephants are extremely intelligent, sentient animals. Their conservation is paramount for many African countries’ economies and ecosystems, not to mention the species innate value.

An elephant in Tsavo West National Park © Xander Samaras

Elephants across Africa have been divided into two Appendices. Appendix I and Appendix II. Elephants from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are included in Appendix II as these countries contain the larger populations of elephants. Elephant populations in these countries have legislated for “regulated” hunting. However the ivory of these animals remains protected by Appendix I. So even though an elephant is listed in Appendix II, its ivory is still protected by Appendix I and special quotas for hunting elephants is set by CITES to allow just hunted ivory tusks to be legally exported by the hunter. ALL other commercial international trade outside of “personal effects” hunting quotas in ivory is presently prohibited by CITES.

At the upcoming convention, four proposals have been submitted surrounding African elephants. Zambia has applied to DOWN LIST their elephants from Appendix I to Appendix II. This would allow them to apply for future commercial trade in registered raw ivory (tusks & pieces), as well as hides and leather goods to CITES-approved trading partners. This amendment would also allow non-commercial trade in hunting trophies.

Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have applied to amend an annotation to the standing agreement. In summary, they are proposing that trade be allowed for live elephants given an appropriate destination (e.g. a zoo) as well as trade in hides, hair, leather goods, ivory jewelry and hunting trophies for non- commercial purposes.

Their proposal similarly permits trade in registered raw ivory. The proposal stipulates that trade will only be from government registered stockpiles to verified trade partners/countries. Furthermore, they have inferred that proceeds of prospective trade would be used to exclusively fund elephant conservation.

There is a proposal to UP LIST the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe from Appendix II to Appendix I. Finally, there is a novel proposal to include the extinct Woolly Mammoths in Appendix II. Mammoths are currently not protected by CITES. These proposals highlight the contrasting approaches to elephant trade. CITES is composed of both conservationists and hunters and their opposing opinions.

I don’t need to tell you that if the first two proposals are passed it could devastate elephant populations across the rest of Africa. The countries with elephants listed in Appendix II might have sustainable elephant populations, however, legalizing this trade from Southern Africa would create an avenue and market for the illegal trade of ivory. It will likely encourage exploitation within countries with smaller populations of endangered elephants. Trade of ivory fuels a massive Asian market & a demand which cannot be fully supplied sustainably. Eventually these “government stockpiles” will run out. The question that follows is how will these demands and ivory carving rooms then be satisfied?

Pictured below is a map of countries being affected by the illegal trade of ivory. Whereby red countries denote most affected, yellow markedly affected and blue simply affected.

Map of illegal trade: CITES, google maps – 2019


Approximately 55 African elephants are poached every day (African Elephants – WWF).
Determining the source of ivory is difficult. For countries that have their elephants classified in Appendix I, it would not be difficult for poachers to claim their ivory is from any of the legalized Appendix II countries. Furthermore, legalizing the trade of ivory will increase its demand as people will incorrectly believe ivory is coming exclusively from legal stockpiles and therefore not harming the more vulnerable elephant populations.

It is for this similar reason that the proposal protecting Mammoth ivory in Appendix Class II has been put forward. Elephant ivory resembles their extinct relatives. This makes laundering and mislabelling of poached elephant ivory a significant risk. Mammoth ivory consequently falls under the “look-alike provision.” The purpose of this protection is to prevent the possibility of laundering and mislabelling elephant ivory and thereby prevent illegal trade.

During my time as a Save the Elephants intern, I looked into Zambia’s imports and exports over the past 14 years. This analysis was fascinating given their current proposal to downlist their elephants. A surprising number of exports had gone unreported! Hopefully, this will lead people to question Zambia’s credibility in managing ivory exports and the potentially serious implications for monitoring the effect of the down-listing should their proposal be passed.

Acacia in Ngatuni © Victor Ndombi

On the other hand, Kenya has taken steps to mitigate elephant poaching. Back in 1989, they burned their ivory stockpiles as a stance against trade and have had two further ivory stockpile burns since then in 2011 and 2016. Since then, the number of elephants poached in Kenya has gradually declined. This is largely the result of Kenya’s strong anti-poaching initiatives. Save the Elephants recently organized and participated in the no market no trade protest in Nairobi. Kenya has a large and increasing human population. They realized that effective elephant management depends upon the country’s ability to learn to coexist with elephants. During my time as an Elephants and Bees intern, I have seen first-hand the importance of education and engagement with communities.

Acacia in Sagalla © Xander Samaras

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