29. September 2021.

The Export of 42 Wild-Caught Live Elephants from Namibia May Violate International Law

Conservation and wildlife law experts call for immediate halt to capture and export of wild elephants from vulnerable desert-adapted population.

Conservationists and wildlife trade experts from non-governmental organisations across the globe are calling for a halt to Namibia’s controversial capture and export of wild elephant family groups including from the country’s unique desert-adapted elephant population, already threatened by years of drought, habitat loss and trophy hunting.

According to a number of conservation NGOs, the exports intended by Namibia — most likely headed to zoos and safari parks outside of Africa — may be in contravention of international rules under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The NGOs have appealed to the authorities in Namibia to urgently halt these exports and have asked the CITES Secretariat to withdraw any statement that appears to endorse Namibia’s intentions.

Vera Weber, President of Fondation Franz Weber, said: “The Namibian government declared in August that it had auctioned 57 elephants to three undisclosed bidders for a total of less than 400,000 USD and would export 42 of them. Although we still do not know the identity of the buyers, it is highly likely that Namibia intends to export the animals to foreign zoos, which would mean a lifetime of captivity for the exported animals, and a possible collapse of the fragile desert-adapted elephant population in Namibia.”

Conservation NGOs and wildlife trade experts have publicly called on Namibia to immediately halt the capture and export of wild elephants to captive facilities – for both legal and ethical reasons. Technically, Namibia is only allowed to export live elephants to conservation programmes inside of Africa, according to the terms of the listing of their elephant population under CITES. However, Namibia uses a contested legal interpretation of these terms to justify sending wild, live-caught elephants to captive facilities outside of their natural range. This interpretation is highly controversial and sets a dangerous precedent for the future protection of wild elephants from the impact of international trade.

The CITES Animals Committee has also expressed concerns about this divisive issue and the CITES Standing Committee (Executive Body) will examine the legality of Namibia’s interpretation as it applies to exports of live elephants at its next meeting in 2022.

Despite the current controversy, the CITES Secretariat issued a statement on September 8 all but endorsing the planned exports from Namibia – only to revise it a few days later after criticism from several Parties to CITES and concerned NGOs. Multiple news outlets have reported that the Secretariat’s original, damaging statement gives Namibia the potential cover to move forward with exports. The Secretariat’s updated statement still fails to clarify that it is not endorsing these exports. These same NGOs now ask the Secretariat to retract its statement altogether until the legality of this trade has been fully examined by the CITES Standing Committee and the Parties.

“The Secretariat`s intervention is highly irregular and has potentially troublesome consequences. It appears to give a green light to these contentious exports and to pre-empt the authority of the CITES Standing Committee by offering an opinion on a legal matter that is still undecided by the Parties,” said Georgina Lamb, CEO of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation.

 Namibia’s famous desert elephants targeted

Namibia has attempted to justify the controversial capture and export of live elephants by claiming that it is necessary to reduce elephant populations and minimise “persistent human elephant conflict.” However, according to available census data and a recent field investigation, very few elephants are present in the targeted arid Kunene Region. Elephant populations in this area are already threatened from drought, high infant mortality and the very low number of remaining adult bulls.

“Notwithstanding our serious concerns on the legality of any exports of elephants outside their natural habitat, the capture of animals in Namibia`s dry Northwest may have a devastating impact on the viability of the few remaining desert-adapted elephants. Capturing, selling and exporting elephants will not prevent conflict with humans. There are other humane, effective and proven ways to mitigate problems and ensure co-existence between people and elephants,” said Daniela Freyer, Co-founder, Pro Wildlife.

In addition to the legal controversy surrounding these proposed exports many experts share serious concerns about animal welfare, mortality during capture and transport, and the life prospects for these animals at their final destination which cannot be under-estimated.

Jeff Flocken, President of Humane Society International, said,  “African elephants are intelligent, sentient animals with highly developed emotional complexity, and strong social and family bonds that last a lifetime. It is unconscionable cruelty to subject these animals to brutal and traumatic capture, separating them from their families and condemning them to lifelong captivity for the sake of human amusement.”

Between 2010 and 2019, African countries exported 194 wild caught elephants, the majority of which came from Zimbabwe, followed by Namibia. At least 22 of them are alleged to be dead. The biggest importer was China, followed by the US. The IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group does not endorse such “ex situ” exports because they do not contribute to the conservation of the species in its natural habitat.”

“What Namibia proposes – using a dubious interpretation of the listing rules to create a loophole that suits their purpose – risks driving a coach and horses through the underlying principles of the Convention and the authority of decisions agreed by the Parties. The rules regarding the export of live elephants from Namibia, by any rational reading, could not be clearer. To suggest otherwise is dangerously disengenuous. These proposed exports must be halted. Otherwise, others who wish to exploit wildlife in this cavalier fashion, with scant regard for binding rules and agreements, will be able to do so with seeming impunity,“ concluded Dr. Mark Jones, Head of Policy,  Born Free Foundation

-ENDS-

Supporting organisations: 

  • Animal Welfare Institute
  • Born Free Foundation
  • David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation
  • Fondation Franz Weber
  • Humane Society International
  • Pro Wildlife
  • Robin des Bois
  • Species Survival Network

Background information:

Conservationist letters to CITES Secretariat:

Namibia’s elephants, along with those of three other countries (South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe) are listed on CITES Appendix II, permitting international commercial trade, but subject to certain conditions. The rest of Africa’s elephant populations are on Appendix I, which prohibits commercial trade. The Namibian elephant population’s listing in CITES includes an annotation limiting exports of live elephants to “in situ conservation programmes”. In an attempt to circumvent this requirement, Namibia quotes the last sentence of the annotation which states that “all other specimens shall be deemed to be specimens of species included in Appendix I and their trade shall be regulated accordingly”. However, this provision was originally included to prevent exports of ivory other than a one-off sale of ivory stockpiles agreed by the Parties. It was not intended to allow the country to choose whether to export live elephants as Appendix I or Appendix II animals. The term “specimen” is commonly used within CITES to differentiate different types of specimens of the same species, such as live animals or different body parts such as tusks, skins etc.  Dividing one type of specimen, namely live animals, into those that can only be traded under the annotation’s terms and others, based only on the intentions of the exporting Party, that can avoid these terms by being traded as though they were on Appendix I would render this and other CITES annotations completely meaningless.

Relevant CITES Documents:

Elephants in zoos frequently endure a significant number of challenges, disadvantages and negative consequence including: a lack of breeding success; the fact that more elephants die in zoos that have been bred in zoos; the fact that almost no elephants from zoos have ever gone back to the wild, whereas hundreds have been captured and brought into captivity (with numerous resultant deaths); and the fact that many elephants in zoos are physically, mentally and socially compromised.

IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group. 2003. Statement on the capture of wild elephants for use in captivity. IUCN-SSC African Elephant Specialist Group, Mokuti Lodge, Namibia, 2003. https://www.iucn.org/ssc-groups/mammals/african-elephant- specialist-group/afesg-statements/removal-african-elephants-captive-use

Cruise, Adam (2021): Investigative report on sales of wild live elephants (Loxodonta africana) from Namibia, Sept 2021. https://africanelephantjournal.com/investigation-of-live-elephants/

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