Trade of Wild Caught Baby Elephants

31. August 2019

This year, between August 17 – 28, 2020,  the world has once more tried to save endangered species  during the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) conference in Geneva.  The conference attempted to reach agreement on sustainable trade of threatened plant and animal species between 183 CITES members (countries). Once the complex task of agreeing on which plants and animals  are endangered, it should be straight forward to ban all commercial trade of these wild endangered species.

After all, with the exception of transferring live species between range countries for the sole purpose of their conservation,  commercial trade across national borders and continents of species endangered by extinction, is not sustainable by definition. With a few  exceptions CITES agrees with this principle by classifying species threatened by extinction under APPENDIX I, thus banning all commercial trade of such live plants and animals and any of their parts (including ivory).

Having created APPENDIX II for those species that could become endangered in the future, CITES allows their international commercial trade requiring only an export license. Not surprisingly, the up-listing and down-listing of species become major points of contention between the experts of the different members, always justified by good conservation objectives, but in reality often based on commercial and political interests.

And the scale of such commerce is mind boggling.  According to a 2018 TRAFIC study, between 2006 and 2015 legal exports to Asia alone came to 1.3 million live animals and plants, 1.5 million skins and two thousand tons of meat. And these figures apply to CITES listed species only. The international trade in animals not categorized by CITES is estimated to be ten times larger. Add to this the importance of the illegal trade and the protection of species endangered by extinction becomes enormously complex.

Wild African elephant family. Photo credit: Thula Thula Game Reserve

Even African elephants, clearly recognized as an endangered species, are being threatened by different interests of CITES members.

The shipment of young African elephants from Zimbabwe to China in 2015 and from e Swatini, (formerly Swaziland) to the US has received international attention. In an early vote, CITES members voted in committee to limit the trade in live, wild-caught African elephants to range countries only. There were 48 YES votes and 18 NO votes. Since a two thirds majority is required to carry a resolution, it looked like juvenile elephants will no longer be shipped legally to Asia, Europe and the US for distribution to circuses and zoos. But a a final vote during the last days of the conference could have overturned this outcome, particularly since the European blog with 28 votes did not vote during the first round.

Catching up with her family. Photo credit Thula Thula game reserve
Catching up with her family. Photo credit: Thula Thula Game Reserve

Animal rights groups and the general public in Asia, the US and Europe have increasingly recognized that elephants in most zoos and circuses lead miserable lives, deprived of everything that makes them elephants.  A young elephant captured in the wild, most likely because its mother has been killed by hunters or poachers, is  traumatized by the death of its mother and by being separated from its larger family. The little it learned about being an elephant during the first years of its life are not sufficient to cope with an environment totally alien to its developing nature. The cruelty involved in controlling animals under such circumstances results in early death of some, and for those that survive, an existence akin to  human beings in  concentration camps.

The incarceration of elephants in European zoos and circuses has no educational value for the viewing public and contributes nothing to the conservation of the species. Forced breeding of elephants under such circumstances is rarely successful and extremely cruel.

Fortunately, during the last days at the Geneva conference, CITES approved a near total ban on taking baby elephants from the wild and distributing them to circuses and zoos in other countries. This decision significantly strengthens restrictions of the elephant trade, but should be considered as a first step only in eliminating such trade altogether.

From now on elephants can only be captured in the wild and placed into captive facilities elsewhere under exceptional circumstances and with CITES committee approval. The “exceptional circumstances” addition was the price CITES had to pay to get the EU 28 votes to support the ban. It leaves the door to trading in live elephants only partially closed.

The second threat comes form 5 South African countries unhappy with the restrictions on trading in wild baby elephants and not being allowed to freely trade in ivory. They could simply decide to terminate their CITES membership, which would withdraw more than half of Africa’s elephant population from CITES oversight.  If they follow through on their threat to leave CITES, the survival of the African elephant species continues to be seriously endangered.


Images courtesy of the Thula Thula Game Reserve in South Africa: