/ 14 April 2023

Which SADC president is ready to unlock wildlife’s trade value?

African Spy Chiefs Warn Of Poaching Link To Terror Groups
While the rejection of once-off sales might please the animal rights groups who claim to be protecting the elephants from poachers. Photo: Supplied

After failing three times in a row — 2016, 2019 and 2022 —  to win permission from the majority of the world’s nations to sell their ivory stockpiles to generate income to support wildlife and habitat conservation, the elephant-rich SADC countries have seemingly reached a dead end with Cites, the UN agency charged with regulating international trade in endangered wild fauna and flora species.

The rest of the world now seems uninterested in allowing once-off ivory sales. They say that they distort the marketplace by suddenly flooding it with product that may not be needed in such quantities. It also generates emotional responses, bad science and knee-jerk opposition. 

What has long been needed, instead, is a consistent marketing process that yields realistic prices for a steady supply of ivory to meet a legitimate worldwide demand — ivory that comes mainly from elephants that have died of natural causes and left their tusks behind.

While the rejection of once-off sales might please the animal rights groups who claim to be protecting the elephants from poachers — and the vast majority of Cites member countries who are either captured or influenced by them — it does not represent a rejection of the need of African countries to find a way to meet their conservation costs. Nor does it recognise that the rejection of legal sales leaves the market for ivory open to poachers, and their masters in criminal gangs, to fill a consistent worldwide demand.  

At a press conference during the Cites Conference in Panama, the SADC nations declared that despite being the world’s best wildlife conservationists and owners of the world’s biggest elephant population, they are totally powerless within Cites. When SADC ministers were asked what they would do if they didn’t get a yes vote for ivory trade, they indicated that, collectively, they would do nothing. 

Can you think of a more frustrating position than having both a problem and a number of potential solutions, yet being prohibited from employing any of them? It borders on the bullying associated with dictatorships and it is high time the SADC nations reacted to the challenge it represents.

But, sadly, the SADC nations have done nothing to change their powerless position.

Is SADC’s only strategy now to ask for a yes vote on ivory trade at Cites COP20 in 2025? If it does, it will be as Albert Einstein is reported to have observed — doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting a different result, is the definition of insanity. 

This reality has prompted some SADC countries to consider other ways to maximise the value of their wildlife outside of the restrictions of Cites. They have recently been exposed to some attractive alternative pathways that might be followed. But it takes courage to try these new techniques to fight the relentless pressure and mounds of money of the animal rights groups. Such a courageous resistance, if mounted, would match the strength and selflessness of a Kwame Nkrumah or a Nelson Mandela. 

The use of diplomacy and lobbying for permanent and sustainable international ivory trade has never worked since Cites was established 48 years ago. 

According to Botswana’s former minister of environment and tourism, now ambassador to the US, Onkokame Kitso Mokaila, only “fraud, rigged elections, sold votes bought by the Europeans” have prevailed. He was describing the stolen election at the August 2019 Cites vote in Geneva, Switzerland. 

If diplomacy doesn’t work, another path is clearly needed to restore control of wildlife from Western organisations with racist leanings to the SADC countries.

Instituting new, legal means of trading ivory would create opportunities to put poachers, illegal ivory trade syndicates and the animal right groups fundraising industry out of business. In the process, trade would generate income for habitat and wildlife conservation. 

The income from legal international ivory trade sales would also meet the socio-economic needs of communities co-existing with wild animals. With wildlife able to pay for its keep through the trade of ivory and the sale of other wildlife products, taxpayers’ money for public health, education and infrastructure development would no longer be diverted to meet various environmental crises. 

Explaining the animal rights groups’ attitude to wildlife, Godfrey Harris, managing director of the Ivory Education Institute, said, “The major animal right groups are organisations who only seem to worry about the survival of iconic species — lions, rhinos and elephants — they have little time for the survivability of all other living things that make up food chain. 

“Why?  Because tiny species don’t have the fundraising appeal that the animal rights groups need to generate the income required to maintain their expensive lifestyle. In sharp contrast, the African people recognise that wild animals define Africa. They are looking for win-win situations which involve both wild animals and humans in a comfortable coexistence.”

Harris said that SADC countries have been unsuccessful in fighting against Western animal rights groups because they can’t “match their funding”. 

“Unless the private sector is involved in SADC’s new quest to unlock value in wildlife trade, they cannot achieve sustainable conservation,” he said. “Sustainable conservation will only work if led by profit-making organisations engaged in profit-making initiatives of benefit to them and their governmental partners.”

Will one of the presidents of the wildlife-rich SADC countries step forward and announce, perhaps at the UN General Assembly in September 2023 in New York, that their country has made the decision to go a new way to fund the well-being of African wildlife, its habitat and  African people? 

That would certainly catch the attention of the world. It would be an affirmation that no country can develop meaningfully without sustainable use of its natural resources. Which SADC country will usher in a new wildlife management era by taking that historic step?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.