Whose elephants are they anyway?

30 August 2019
We have been following the various developments emerging from the recently concluded Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) held in Geneva, Switzerland.  We applaud the statements of Minister of Environment and Tourism Pohamba Shifeta calling for a review of Namibia’s continued membership in that international convention.
Namibia is award-winning conservation and environmentally conscious nation. However, the reward for our effective wildlife and environmental management programs is for CITES members to treat us like an errant student caught disrupting a lecture. Our proposals are shot down with no negotiated alternatives on offer that recognize the responsible reasons they have been put forth.
Namibia with the second-largest white rhino population in the world proposed to reopen limited and controlled trade in white rhino horn and to transfer the species from Appendix I to Appendix II which would allow transportation of live animals and open the regulated, professional hunting of the species. Also, no sale of existing government ivory stocks was allowed and no further trading of live elephants would be permitted.
We find it untenable that countries that have no elephants or rhinos can dictate policy to those that do. Countries that have built their economies on colonialism, slavery, profit-driven transnational corporations, an out-of-control military-industrial complex, and killing off their indigenous wildlife to clear the way for agriculture and manufacturing development, are sitting in judgment of countries who have not done these things.
CITES entered into force on 1 July 1975 and Namibia signed on just after independence in 1991, over 28 years ago. The world has changed and parts of CITES are out of touch.
Minister Shifeta stated that the CITES decisions made are political and not based on conservation principles. Tanzanian President John Magufuli who is the new SADC Chairman declared that the way CITES operates is contrary to its founding principles and uses ideological and anti-trade models.
Namibia cannot ignore its own experiences nor overlook these and other informed complaints about CITES. The question about the relevance of a CITES that is dominated by members that are opposed to Namibia’s goals must be asked.
CITES appears to be dominated by the perspectives of über-left, anti-hunting, conservation NGOs, that tend to symbolically pat African nations on the head and tell us the ‘best way’  (i.e., their way) to do everything. Namibia ought not to stand quietly by and accept such treatment.
How can CITES members such as Austria, Iceland, the UK, North Macedonia, Lithuania, Ireland, Sweden or Peru tell Namibia anything about how to manage our elephants and rhinos? Where are their elephants and rhinos? Shall Namibia chastise the USA for the decimated population of timberwolves in the wild or their national parks? What do we know about their people’s reality of living with free-roaming wolf packs in cattle country?
Any country should constantly review its membership in any organization that does not fit its national ‘to-do list.’ When a treaty no longer serves the priorities of a signatory or sets aside promises made, then withdrawal is an option. Even the USA pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO, and the Paris Accords on the environment. 
CITES should wake up and realize that marginalizing the SADC region is a strategic mistake. Losing an entire region could mean that their one-sided votes on elephants or rhinos could end up applying to nations who do not have them. We ask if the countries voting against the Namibian proposals are prepared to subsidize MET for the value of the ivory stocks that cannot be sold or help maintain national parks or protect high-value species?
This was not the first CITES meeting over the years where Namibian proposals were outvoted with no alternative on offer.
There is a precedent for allowing the once-off, specific and controlled sale of ivory stockpiles. Namibia and other SADC nations were allowed to sell agreed-upon quantities of registered government-owned ivory stocks in two one-off sales: once in 1999 to Japan, and a second time to Japan and China in 2008. Why not allow this now, 11 years later?
Without a doubt, corruption and greed have caused environmental devastation all over the world – look at the rain forest fires in Brazil right now.  CITES is needed, but instead of marginalizing SADC countries, CITES should do the hard work of maintaining its mission, while addressing on some level, earnest proposals consistently put forth by members.
Some argue that any legal trade in ivory will accelerate demand and increase elephant poaching. In contrast, there is an argument that more legal ivory in a targetted market will likely depress illegal market prices and undercut poaching profits. Since these once-off sales have happened twice in the past, let an analysis of the post-sales poaching and illegal ivory trade data, inform this debate.
There should be no debate around the fact that revenues from an exclusive, stockpiled ivory sale, can address the current MET budgetary shortfalls that are forcing cutbacks in national park maintenance, salaries for more rangers, and anti-poaching efforts.
Wildlife is one of the main draws for tourism, the third-highest contributor to Namibia’s GDP, which attracts over 1.4 million fee-paying visitors. Revenues from regulated ivory sales invested in tourism development is a win-win and must be pursued by MET. 
Instead of trouncing every Namibian proposal, at the very least, CITES should have allowed the once-off, supervised the sale of existing stockpiles on a reasonable basis (with a six-year hiatus afterward) as has been done before.
Namibia should consider proposing a change to the voting rules that CITES members that are home to the specific wild animals in each Appendix to have double the voting weight of those who do not have them. The re must be room for compromise and environmental absolutists on the ‘other side’ cannot be allowed to consistently dominate all votes and make CITES exclusive and not inclusive. 
Namibian decision-makers must consider whether being a part of CITES generates more revenues than would be earned by the sale of ivory stockpiles and limited rhino sales. Will the backlash of leaving the convention cause recognizable harm to the ailing economy of the Land of the Brave, enough to force Namibia to remain a member and accept the constant rejections of its priorities?
Shifeta is correct to stand up and ask the world: Whose elephants are they anyway?
Go to https://www.cites.org for more details about CITES.


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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