Elephants summit commendable, SADC leaders must stand together

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We commend leaders of the five SADC member states who constitute the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Park (KAZA) for coming together this week to deliberate on the thorny issue of the African elephant and trade in ivory.

Hats of to these leaders of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe for standing up to bullies who want to dictate what Africans should do with their resources.

As we report elsewhere in this issue, the SADC leaders took a swipe at the West and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) over elephant management plans.  This comes as these elephant range states prepare for the CITES COP18 meeting scheduled for Colombo, Sri Lanka, where the issue of the ban on trade in ivory and other elephant products is expected to take centre stage.

Southern Africa is home to more than three quarters of the world’s population, thanks to sound conservation and wildlife management policies, but some western powers and their NGOs, backed by CITES, do not want these countries to benefit from their wildlife resources.

KAZA is Africa’s largest conservation landscape, encompassing national parks, game management areas, communal conservancies on farm land – and a great deal of wildlife, including 75% of Africa’s elephants and 18% of its lions, in an area of 520,000 square kilometres.

But the huge elephant herd has had its downside.  The human-wildlife conflict has resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, destruction of crops and environmental degradation.  Surely, Southern African countries must be allowed to manage their wildlife resources in the best way they see fit.

As Namibian President and SADC chairperson Hage Geingob aptly put it, “we should not be victims of our success in conservation and the West must humble itself and learn conservation from us instead of lecturing us on what we ought to do”.

 We therefore believe that forums such as this week’s elephant summit are commendable as they enable leaders in the region to deliberate and come up with a common position ahead of the Colombo meeting. We are well aware that the Southern African states will go up against tough opponents when 182 countries gather for COP18 in June.

With a record number of proposals and agenda items, the stage is now set for a bruising fight where Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa want to win rights to allow them to resume ivory trading to beef up their conservation budgets.

We therefore call for a unity of purpose not only among SADC member states, but appeal to all African countries to speak with one voice when it comes to the issue of ivory trade.  Granted, we know there are other African countries that have banned ivory trade and have, under pressure from the powerful western lobby, burnt their ivory.  But we believe Africans need to look through the smokescreen and give this issue careful consideration.

We believe no African elephant range country wants to see a depletion of its elephants through poaching.  All we seek to point at is for ivory to benefit the people in which this resource is found.  There is no reason why African states beg for aid from western capitals when they are sitting on vast natural resources, including ivory, that can be sustainably utilized for the benefit of their peoples.

As Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority spokesman Tinashe Farawo recently pointed out, the ban on the trade in ivory was meant to save species from extinction, but the result is far from that. Currently, Zimbabwe is battling an ever growing elephant population three to four times its carrying capacity. The world has got about 400 000 elephants and three quarters of that population is within the SADC region. Zimbabwe alone has a total of 84 000 elephants. That’s a big number considering the fact that the normal carrying capacity for one elephant is five square kilometres. Farawo rightly pointed that the country is still going through a lot of problems because elephants are over populated and they are now competing for resources with people.

Apart from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia are also stuck with stockpiles of ivory worth billions of dollars because of non-committal by the international community on the ivory ban. 

We call upon more African leaders to voice their support for trade in ivory trade as we heard for COP18 in Colombo. We note that while countries and political leaders play politics, it is the communities that live alongside elephants and other wildlife that continue to suffer.  In Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe there is widespread human-wildlife conflict as a result of the increasing elephant populations.

Contrary to widespread fears that allowing ivory trade will result in increased poaching activities, we believe a lift in the ban on trade in ivory and elephant products to allow for controlled trade will have a more positive impact on those communities as the funds would be channeled towards conservation efforts. 

Besides, sound wildlife management has resulted in tourists flocking to these SADC countries which have created huge wildlife parks such as the KAZA and the Great Limpopo Transfontier Park, in the process bringing in the much-needed foreign currency.  It therefore defies logic that these countries would sit on their laurels and watch their elephant populations being depleted by poachers!

Allowing controlled trade would result in the countries raising enough resources to support the fight against poaching and at the same time developing communities living alongside wild animals.

As Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa put it, “The one size fits all approach from CITES of banning everything disregards the good efforts of our governments and is neither sustainable nor advisable”. 

SADC and fellow African leaders must therefore stand together on this and other issues that have immediate and long term benefits for their peoples.

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