Stop the ivory trade

As a conservationist, a biologist, and an African, I am encouraged by the efforts countries like Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda continue to make to conserve magnificent species, such as elephants and mountain gorillas.

An increasing number of elephant-range states are taking a strong stand against the ivory trade and the pillaging of our countries’ precious natural heritage. As stewards of some of the world’s most magnificent megafauna, East Africans, in particular, have a special responsibility to protect species that made these lands their home long before we laid claim to it.

Poaching has not just become a significant hazard to our tourism industries, which depend on an abundance of flora and fauna; it now also threatens our very identities as Africans. Elephants are an integral part of the landscape, and part of what it means to be African – to be from countries blessed with an awe-inspiring landscape and wildlife to match.

Rwanda, along with its neighbour Uganda, is arguably leading one of the most successful conservation programmes in Africa. The critically endangered mountain gorilla is the only primate species in the world that is increasing in number.

According to a 2011 census, there are now around 880 individuals – 480 in the Virunga Massif and another estimated 400 in Bwindi National Park in Uganda. Rwanda’s elephants are also rallying. Despite claiming only an estimated 88 elephants according to The 2013 Elephant Database, this still represents over a 100 per cent increase over the last two decades.

It is the people of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are the driving force behind these conservation successes, and who are needed now, more than ever, to show support for the work their governments are carrying out to conserve our elephants.

In September, this year, at the Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17) in Johannesburg, crucial decisions concerning the future of the world’s remaining elephant populations will be made. CITES is an international agreement between governments, which provides varying levels of protection for species that are or may be in danger of extinction from international trade.

With 181 parties to CITES, It is viewed by many as one of the world’s most important Multilateral Environmental Agreements, because all resolutions passed are binding on the members, and contravening them can have serious repercussions for the countries involved.

We need Rwanda to stand with Kenya and other African range states at this conference and call for the closing of all domestic ivory markets – everywhere. Rwanda is considered a model of good practice and bold political will when it comes to conservation.

Domestic ivory markets have emerged as the greatest threat to the survival of elephants, but Rwanda has demonstrated that no cause is lost as long as people and governments are willing to take action.

A resolution demanding a complete end to all domestic ivory trade, supported by large ivory markets such as the United States, is imperative to the future of elephants, which are now being eradicated in record numbers.

Across Africa, it is estimated that between 30 and 35,000 elephants are being slaughtered annually, and in the Central African region the crisis may be at its apex. According to the most recent census carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society, 65 per cent of elephants from the Central African region were lost between 2002 and 2012.

That’s an eradication rate of 9 per cent a year. Time is against us.

Members of the Elephant Protection Initiative now number 11 African range states, with Kenya, Uganda, Liberia and Congo having joined the EPI’s ranks over the last six months.

More are to follow, and soon it is hoped that every single African range state will make a united demand to the rest of the world to end the ivory trade. We must make them listen.

Our elephants have so much to teach us about the importance of community and compassion. As Rwandans, Kenyans, and Ugandans – as Africans – do we dare imagine what we’ll say to our grandchildren as we show them pictures of elephants on Instragram and Flickr while we awkwardly explain away their complete eradication under our very noses?

I for one don’t know anyone who would welcome such a future.

Let us stand together in unity to prevent the continued corrosion of our natural heritage.

About the Elephant Protection Initiative

The EPI was launched by leaders from Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon and Tanzania during the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade in February 2014. 

The objective of the EPI is to maintain the international ban established by CITES in 1989, close domestic markets and put ivory stockpiles beyond economic use. The EPI also provides both immediate and longer-term funding to address the Elephant Crisis through full and timely implementation of the African Elephant Action Plan through both public and private sector support.

The author is a leading African conservation expert.