Namibia admits to questionable export of elephants overseas

By Keith Lindsay, Adam Cruise and Rosie Awori

Just one day before a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which was to examine the legality of Namibia’s intended transaction, its government confirmed that it had already exported elephants to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

And so, after over a year of media speculation, the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) has admitted to exporting 22 of the country’s elephants to a zoo in the UAE.

Disputed interpretation of international law

Its intentions kept under wraps since the original auction of elephants was announced in December 2020, Namibia always retained the option of exporting an unspecified number of them outside of Africa. This would appear to contravene an international law restricting such exports. According the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Namibia is allowed to export live elephants only to in situ conservation programmes (i.e. within the natural range of the species in Africa).

However, Namibia has used a narrow interpretation which allow wild, live-caught elephants to be sent to captive facilities outside of Africa.

Namibia’s announcement came just one day before the 74th meeting  of the CITES Standing Committee (SC74), which began on 7 March, 2022 in Lyon, France. The timing seemed to be aimed at pre-empting the discussion by participants at SC74, who closely examined the legality of Namibia’s interpretation of the Treaty. Burkina Faso, an elephant range State and member of the 32-nation strong African Elephant Coalition, has submitted a legal opinion to SC74 which demonstrates why these exports were and are carried out in violation of CITES.

A dangerous threat to drought-stricken elephants

Namibia tries to justify the sales “as an intervention of increasing cases of human-wildlife conflict, particularly those involving elephants…”. However, all 22 elephants were captured from the sparsely settled Kamanjab commercial farming area – an area, according to a report in 2021, that is part of the semi-desert Kunene Region in north-west Namibia where elephant numbers are dangerously low. This threatened status is mainly due to a series of drought years and to ongoing human-induced disruptions such as trophy hunting, persecution and encroachment into natural habitat by farming activities.

Of major concern are the extremely low numbers of breeding bulls and high infant mortality rate (reportedly 100% since 2014) of the population in this arid area of the Kunene Region. The MEFT’s plan to remove live elephants from this specific area is consequently, and inevitably, not sustainable. And since both human and elephant numbers are so low, incidences of human-elephant conflict (HEC) are correspondingly low, far lower than in other parts of Namibia, especially in the more productive north-east, where elephants thrive and roam across international boundaries.

Conflict or Co-existence?

The elephants were sold to a Namibian wildlife rancher, who then sold them on to the UAE.

While Namibian government has shifted the onus onto the buyer in an attempt to absolve themselves of the decision to export to the UAE, both parties have gained from the sale.  The rancher, in particular, is likely to have reaped the lion’s share of the return from the transaction, as the elephants reportedly fetched several tens of thousands of Namibian dollars per individual. It remains unclear how much of the – undisclosed – tender price at auction paid to the government will actually go into future conservation of elephants or HEC mitigation.

The whole approach, which primarily benefitted a single rich landowner, belies the statements from the government that sale of wildlife leads directly to economic upliftment of rural communities. Indeed, various reports have indicated that rural Namibians in the Kunene Region remain as marginalised and impoverished as ever. The sale of the Kunene elephants, therefore, will do little to improve their plight.

The capture and live export of live elephants is out of step, as a solution to Human-Wildlife Conflict, with the coexistence projects being developed and trialled around Africa and throughout the world. Acknowledging both the challenges faced by farmers and the importance of wildlife corridors shared with human land use in conservation landscapes, the most successful ‘win-win’ examples work on crop protection based on elephant biology and psychology, alongside innovative models of conservation-compatible income generation for rural development. Killing or capturing ‘problem elephants’ is a rather out-of-date approach in the third decade of the 21st century.

This sale will damage the ecotourism that has contributed revenue to the Kunene community’s economy; if the elephants disappear, other wildlife populations could also become a thing of the past. The loss of the elephants is a signal of the risk that land could be lost for natural resources, as more and more is taken over for commerical farming within the region.

These uniquely adapted desert elephants present an opportunity for conservation of an ecosystem in partnership with the community. With the government and wealthy landowners snatching them away, the farmers and their families will also suffer.

Conclusion

Namibia’s elephant export, with its total lack of transparency, is doing a disservice to the very people who are the claimed beneficiaries. Wealthy landowners, rather than rural farmers, stand most to gain from market-based approach to commodifying wildlife; the clock is set back on approaches to coexistence and mutual gains for human livelihoods and nature conservation.

Opinion at the 74th Standing Committee of CITES this week felt that due diligence by Namibia’s exports had not been followed in the transfer to a zoo in UAE that is highly unlikely to provide an ‘appropriate and acceptable destination’ for formerly free-living elephants from the wild in Africa.

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