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Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Migration to Extinction

CHRISTIAAN BAKKES and MARCIA FARGNOLI


Elephants in Etosha National Park
© Marcia Fargnoli
A Blank Space on the Map

On the official map of the Great Elephant Census (GEC) there is a conspicuous blank space cutting through a migrating elephant population. This blank space is the Zambezi region of Namibia- the narrow strip formerly known as the Caprivi. This is the only place in the region where elephant population statistics are unverified.

It is part of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation area. This area includes Northern Botswana, South-Eastern Angola and South-Western Zambia, with Namibia wedged in between.

According to the statistics of the GEC, South-Western Zambia is showing an alarming decline in elephant numbers at more than 5%. Angola shows a decline of 2-5%. Botswana's elephant numbers are rated as stable with a population of approximately 130,000. 

In between lies Namibia. In a recent CITES report Namibia has given its official elephant numbers as 22,711, of which 13,136 live in the North-East of the country.

It is, however impossible to verify those numbers, because Namibia decided not to be part of the GEC. Of all the countries with substantial elephant populations, Namibia was the only one that elected not to participate.

Namibia is also one of the few countries in Africa that aims to legalise the ivory trade.

Elephants in the Ugab River
© Christiaan Bakkes
The Trade Debate
                                                                                                     
A study published in June 2016 by the National Bureau of Economic Research produced damning evidence that the 2008 once-off sale in legal ivory served to fuel the demand, resulting in increased elephant poaching.   The researchers from Princeton University and the University of California-Berkeley demonstrate in their study that the legal sale directly caused the increase in illegal ivory production by about 66 percent resulting in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 elephants. Although the sale was approved by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) with the intention to satisfy the ivory demand in China and Japan, it only served to have the opposite effect.

Namibia took part in that sale.

According to Solomon Hsiang, one of the authors of the study, now that the data has proven that legal ivory sales result in the increase in poaching, legalizing the sale of ivory should not be considered again. Yet, Namibia, along with Japan, aimed to get approval to allow for a regulated domestic ivory trade at an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Congress in Honolulu, Hawaii.  The Congress did not approve the amendments proposed by these two countries and upheld the motion to close all domestic ivory trade. 

In addition, many African countries have proposed for all African elephants to receive the highest protection with no option for trade in ivory under an Appendix I listing by CITES.  In opposition, Namibia has submitted a proposal that their elephants remain on Appendix II which would allow for a future legal trade in ivory under another proposal.  These proposals are currently being deliberated at the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP 17) in Johannesburg.

Elephants in the Hoanib River
© Marcia Fargnoli
Maintaining Wildlife on a Sustainable Basis

Elephants and rhinos are specially protected in Namibia and according to the Constitution must be maintained on a sustainable basis for present and future generations. Sustainability requires a species to be available in the long term for future generations and to never be depleted.  Namibia‘s Environmental Management Act (2007) enshrines the Precautionary Principle in law to ensure that cautious decisions are made with regard to the wildlife.

The Namibian government encourages hunting and the exporting of trophies as part of the National Policy on Tourism for Namibia (2008) and the Policy on Tourism and Wildlife Concessions on State Land.  In these policies, the government claims that money generated from such practices can be used to protect the wildlife and discourage poaching by the communities. In 2016, Namibia’s Cabinet directed the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to “actively campaign against any attempt to ban or restrict hunting and the export of wildlife products from Namibia.”

The Ministry of Environment and Tourism “has established a national annual export quota through CITES of 90 trophy hunted elephants per year (180 tusks per year).”Proponents of elephant hunting and trading in their trophies claim that it is sustainable. 

However, especially in the event of a decreasing elephant population or a rise in poaching, it is practical to question how it can be considered sustainable to legally hunt or trade in a species that is facing a poaching crisis and is vulnerable to extinction.

It could be disastrous if Namibia has overestimated how many elephants it has or underestimated the poaching crisis.  In this situation, the result of hunting, poaching and trading in ivory could seriously drive the species further towards extinction. 

Here, the Precautionary Principle must be implemented in accordance with Namibia‘s Environmental Management Act (2007) to ensure sustainability of the species.  When the exact result from the combination of hunting, poaching and trading is not fully known, the adopted policy must err on the side of caution and be careful of unintended consequences. 

Elephant in the Zambezi Region
©Marcia Fargnoli
Elephant Population Status

In order to understand the best policy decisions with regard to protection of wildlife such as elephants, it is critical to understand the accurate status of the species.

With regard to the actual state of elephants in Africa, the Great Elephant Census (GEC) recently announced its findings after conducting a 2 year intense survey. This continental elephant count produced startling results.

Before the census, many experts, including those from the IUCN, believed that there were around 600,000 savanna elephants left in Africa. However, the GEC produced a count of only 352,271 elephants, far less than what was previously estimated, representing a 30% decrease in just seven years.

According to a recent CITES report, Namibia claims to have a stable and growing elephant population of 22,711 elephants.Namibia had the opportunity to have their elephant statistics subjected to the highest international standards with expert peer review under the GEC at no cost to Namibia, but it chose not to.  If Namibia has such a large population of elephants, why did it choose not to be part of the GEC?  The reason is unknown.

During the GEC, many elephants were fitted with satellite collars in order to plot migration routes and cross border movements. The monitoring of elephant movement in such a manner brought important evidence to light. For example, the satellite images of the census clearly illustrate how collared elephants that lived in Zambia, Angola and Namibia in 2011 moved and became concentrated together in Northern Botswana by 2014.

Botswana came out of the census as the African country with the most elephants at 130,000.

When questioning the actual state of Namibia’s elephants, it is important to note that Namibia has submitted official statistics to CITES that states that some 13,136 of Namibia’s 22,711 elephants are located in the north-eastern part of the country. This makes them part of the migratory herds that move freely between Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola. Many of them could already be included in Botswana’s count and Namibia may be overestimating how many elephants it currently has. 

Having the correct statistics should help national and international authorities to make the correct decisions on how best to protect the species. It is difficult to be sure for Namibia, as the data has unfortunately not been verified. 

Elephants in the Hoanib River
© Marcia Fargnoli
The Poaching Crisis

The GEC has verified reports on an elephant genocide across Africa. The numbers of this slaughter are staggering. The research team of the GEC claim Africa has lost 144,000 elephants since 2007, at a rate of around 27,000 a year. Angola, Cameroon, Mozambique and Tanzania seem to be the worst affected countries.

In Namibia, there are some inconsistencies in poaching statistics.  With regard to rhinos, for example, recently Namibia’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta, stated in a press release that approximately 162 rhinos have been poached between January 2015 and August 2016. The Minister disclosed that about 125 rhinos were killed from January to December 2015 alone while another 35 carcasses were discovered in 2016. There is a discrepancy in official reports, however. In the authorised CITES report submitted for CoP17, the endorsed record of rhinos poached in Namibia in 2015 is 90 rhinos, meaning that a large number of poached rhinos were left out of the official CITES statistics for 2015. 

In comparison, “elephant mortalities this year rose to 31 animals, bringing the total since January 2015 to 80.” By adding up the statistics from CITES and official press releases, it can be ascertained that at least 274 elephants have been poached in Namibia since 2012. One must question whether there are any further discrepancies in these statistics.

Statistics aside, poaching is on the increase and it does not appear like the problem will be under control any time soon as criminal syndicates have started to shift their attention from East Africa to the southern African herds.  In Namibia, there is a failure in enforcement with many outstanding poaching incidents, few perpetrators being caught and even less poaching cases going to court.  The number of cases that have been successfully completed and those still on the court roll are not fully disclosed to the Namibian public.

In the rare cases where poachers or traders end up in court, they get pitifully light sentences that serve as no deterrent. Recently, five convicted black rhino poachers were sentenced to a mere six years in prison. Two smugglers caught with pangolin got off with a meager N$300 (US$23) fine each. There is very little deterrence against poaching in Namibia.

Minister Shifeta laments “the fact that many of those arrested have previously been released on bail, and gone back into repeating their crimes”  However, Deputy Prosecutor General Philippus Brink says “that prosecutors do object to bail as far as they can but are also dependent on other role players such as the police to provide them with information that can constitute a legal objection to bail.” In Namibia, there remain serious concerns with failures on all levels from insufficient enforcement, incomplete investigations, missing evidence, overburdened understaffed courts and inadequate penalties. 

Aerial photograph of Migrating Elephants in the Zambezi Region
© Marcia Fargnoli
Unintended Consequences

Namibia asserts that it should be granted special permission to trade in ivory because it claims to have a stable growing population of elephants. Although the IUCN recently denied the ivory trade proposal, Namibia has again proposed the legalized ivory trade to CITES. 

Given the fact that Namibia did not participate in the GEC to subject their elephant data to expert peer review leaves a question about the actual status of Namibia’s elephants.  One can even question the poaching statistics which show signs of discrepancies.  If the population is not stable, is subject to increased poaching or is in large part migratory, should trade even be considered at all?

A large portion of Namibia’s elephants are likely migrating between countries.  Those elephants do not belong to Namibia alone.  This is one reason why international conservation laws such as CITES are made: to protect animals that roam between countries.  No country can independently decide the fate of migratory animals.

This is highlighted in the SADC Protocol on Wildlife Conservation and Law Enforcement (1999) which Namibia is a party to.  It states that “Each party shall ensure that activities within its jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the wildlife resources of other states.”  Namibia has been persistent in issuing hunting permits for elephants and making proposals to international authorities to allow for Namibia to trade in ivory, but these decisions could cause damage to elephants that are migratory and are therefore resources of other states. 

Namibia also signed the London Declaration on Illegal Wildlife Trade (2014) which clearly states that all signatories must oppose the trade in wildlife products where they could stimulate poaching, trafficking or demand. The recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research has demonstrated that legal ivory sales only serve to intensify poaching, trafficking and demand.

Experts also agreed at the recent IUCN Congress “that any elephant ivory supply, including legal domestic markets, creates opportunities for the laundering of illegal elephant ivory under the guise of legality.”  This is particularly concerning given the hard-to-control, porous borders between Namibia, Angola, and Zambia.  Even if Namibia’s elephant population is currently stable, it remains nearly impossible to control poaching in this area, let alone the laundering of ivory. 

The Precautionary Principle suggests that, in the absence of certainty, the appropriate course of action is to err on the side of caution and be careful of unintended consequences.

In the name of conservation and species survival, Namibia should err on side of caution in accordance with its own laws and international obligations and should acknowledge that the legal sale of ivory could accelerate the demise of the species.  Elephants are already facing a continental crisis.   Any miscalculation could lead to extinction. Should Namibia not now join hands with its neighbours by committing itself to closing the ivory market in order to save the species?


Elephants in the Hoanib River
© Marcia Fargnoli

1 comment:

  1. A very well researched and written article that is objective and hopefully challenges the authorities to more carefully consider the most appropriate course of action

    ReplyDelete