The Brewing Battle Over Africa’s Ivory
Tendai Marima, Foreign Policy
June 12, 2022
HWANGE, ZIMBABWE: Fourteen years since the last legal commercial sale of
ivory, southern African countries are lobbying to sell tons of tusks held
As these states submit proposals to the United Nations Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
summit in November, the fate of African ivory is caught in the crosshairs
of animal rights groups and states burdened with costly stockpiles.
Southern Africa’s states—those countries in Africa with elephant
populations—had hoped to present a united African position on the issue of
the ivory trade at CITES, which will take place at the U.N. climate change
conference in Panama.
Although the United Kingdom has just implemented the Ivory Act, punishing
illegal or undocumented sales with a potential fine of up to 250,000 pounds
(or around $314,000), the African continent is deeply divided over whether
all elephants should be classified in CITES Appendix I, which lists
endangered species and plants. Currently, some African and Asian elephants
are listed in Appendix I, which means commercial trade is strictly
Under Appendix II, the trade of certain species is allowed in exceptional
circumstances, and pachyderms from Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and
Zimbabwe currently fall under this category because of their large
population. Appendix II permits restricted international trade in animals
that are not necessarily threatened with extinction.
The African Elephant Coalition (AEC), made up of at least 30 East and West
African countries that oppose ivory sales, wants all tusker trade stopped,
whereas Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, where most
of the world’s elephants roam, advocate for the right to sell their ivory.
The debate comes against a backdrop of concerted conservation efforts meant
to protect vulnerable elephant populations, which still appear to be
declining over the last decade.
But conservation programs are costly, especially for countries like
Zimbabwe, which is battling triple-digit inflation, and Namibia, plagued by
a contracting economy due to persistent drought and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Southern African countries are seeking support for a one-off sale of
stockpiles accumulated through natural elephant deaths and seizures from
Since 1989, the CITES ban on international commercial ivory trade requires
member states to keep stockpiles as a way of monitoring trade. However,
some poorer states are growing weary of CITES’s requirement. Fulton
Mangwanya, director-general of Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management
Authority (ZimParks), believes auctioning tusks will flood the market,
which will in turn reduce poaching. “Demand is high, and it’s causing these
illegal activities,” he said. “They should allow the legal sale of ivory so
that we sell and saturate the market so that no one goes poaching.”
Selling will also help reduce the costs of managing a stockpile that
requires $160,000 annually for security monitoring and other running
expenses, Mangwanya said.
However, Kenya, one of the AEC countries advocating against the African
Elephant Coalition, habitually burns its stockpiles and argues that legal
trade in ivory, even a one-off auction, would lead to increased poaching.
John Scanlon, CEO of the Elephant Protection Initiative, expressed the same
“Once you have a market in ivory, you have a high value placed on ivory. It
does stimulate poaching,” he said.
In 2008, CITES permitted four African countries—Botswana, Namibia, South
Africa, and Zimbabwe—to dispose of their growing ivory stocks, but studies
by conservationists show that since the one-time sale, seizures of smuggled
ivory leaving African countries increased from 4.8 to 8.4 seizures per
country per year between 2009 to 2013. Research suggests in the years prior
to the sale, between 2003 to 2007, there was not much fluctuation in
The Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants index, a resource containing
collated field data from conservationists and rangers, shows there was “a
clear discontinuous increase” in elephant carcasses that died by unnatural
causes post-2008. This is attributed to poaching to supply a waiting market.
The spike in seizures corresponds with increased poaching from 2006, mainly
in Tanzania, where around 60 percent of the pachyderm population was
slaughtered in just five years. Researchers suggest the once-off sale
triggered an increased demand in Asia where white gold is a status symbol
used in furniture and jewelry as well as in traditional medicine.
China, once the world’s largest consumer of ivory, still has a robust
economy and a growing presence in Africa, where poaching syndicates that
decimated herds of elephants in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe were
linked to Asian kingpins and queens.
The southern range states hope to legitimately sell to Asian markets, but
many markets in China have closed due to a ban on elephant trade in 2017.
However, domestic trade in Japan is still active and lucrative.
Zimbabwe’s stockpile includes 130 tons of ivory and 6 to 7 tons of
rhinoceros horn, the product of poaching or natural causes, estimated to be
worth as much as $600 million. However, environmental accountants strongly
doubt the accuracy of this figure.
Research by the Wildlife Justice Commission showed that in 2017, raw
African ivory sold for $208 a kilogram, but in 2020, that figure plummeted
to $92. There is also historical precedent for ivory-selling at much lower
prices at official auctions than on the black market because at the last
CITES-approved sale in 2008, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe
sold a collective 102 tons for just $157 a kilogram, far lower than the
going black market average of $750, according to research by Save the
Elephants. Nonetheless, the more than $15 million earned by SADC countries
went toward elephant conservation as required by CITES sale regulations.
While ZimParks runs its operations from the revenue it generates from
hunting and tourism, the country’s spiraling economic crisis makes it
increasingly difficult for the organization to finance itself. Salaries
often fall behind schedule and game rangers lack adequate anti-poaching
gear and vehicles.
Further, Zimbabwe has a shortage of rangers, and Mangwanya feels employing
an additional 1,200 staff would meet the country’s needs. Due to lack of
financing, the department has had to engage donors, such as the
International Fund for Animal Welfare, to support the skeletal staff that
looks after the country’s game reserves. Although poaching has fallen
significantly at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s premier wildlife
sanctuary with a population of more than 45,000 elephants, three times it’s
carrying capacity, much more needs to be done.
Wary of possible criticism from the West, Zimbabwe invited envoys from the
Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States to
view vaults crammed with rhino horns and tusks in May in Harare, the
country’s capital. Mangwanya said selling to the market isn’t the only
option; he’s willing to offer the ivory stock to any takers for a price.
“We aren’t saying we only want to sell the tusks, even if [the European
Union] came and said they want to give us money and they’ll take them to
destroy them or store them elsewhere. We don’t care.”
“What we want is to unlock the value of our ivory so the people who are
being killed or injured by elephants or having their fields trampled by
elephants will benefit,” he added.
At least 60 people have been killed during incursions with wild animals in
Zimbabwe this year, with hippos and crocodiles the main predators against
humans. Unlike other southern range states, the country doesn’t have a
compensation policy nor is there funding for preventative mechanisms, such
as chili pepper guns, to repel intruding pachyderms.
In Namibia, where funding for game reserves comes from the government and
international donors, the country sits on a 69-ton stockpile. According to
Teofilus Nghitila, Namibia’s executive director-general of wildlife and
national parks, ivory must be sold.
“We are pushing for the sale of wildlife and wildlife-related products so
that we generate more revenues and we reinvest that revenue into
conservation,” Nghitila said. Revenue generated through wildlife tourism
goes into the desert nation’s game product trust fund, which finances the
setup and maintenance of wildlife infrastructure within the parks,
including watering holes, fencing, capture and translocation of wild
animals, and financing human wildlife conflict programs.
When elephants, buffaloes, or hippos destroy crops, farmers in countries
like Namibia and Botswana are compensated for their losses, and in cases of
death, a state-backed scheme contributes to burial costs.
Since the setup of communal conservancy in the 1990s, communities have
conditional rights to wildlife within specific areas, and they benefit from
hunting tourism, photographic safaris, and the sale of indigenous plants.
Although some Indigenous communities have benefitted from wildlife trade
and tourism, the bulk of conservation funding is drawn from the public
Prior to COVID-19, Namibia needed at least $60 million to run various
biodiversity programs, including wildlife, but the annual budget has been
slashed to $33.5 million due to the global tourism slump caused by the
pandemic. This is why Nghitila believes ivory sales can finance some of the
costs of wildlife conservation.
“I don’t see us range states depending on donors. It’s not sustainable,” he
said. “We should have a long-term mechanism to sustain our conservation at
a national level and also be able to support communities directly involved
in wildlife management.”
Nghitila sees the ivory restriction as an unjust ban that is “extremely
unfair” because “if it was a product in America, in Europe, they would not
have imposed this restriction.” Despite the introduction of a new British
law prohibiting trade in elephant teeth and tusks, Namibia is pushing for
the trade of wildlife commodities to see greater benefits going toward
communities living in game areas.
Beyond the arguments around the ethics of an auction, renewing
international trade in ivory would necessitate safeguarding against the
contamination of legal ivory with illicit ivory, and these are yet to be
adequately developed by the lobbying range states.
Charan Saunders, an environmental accountant from South Africa, believes
“it would be impossible to find an open market as commercial sales of ivory
are banned by CITES” and both purchaser and seller nations risk being
Instead, Saunders suggests, the focus should instead be on the service to
the ecosystem provided by keeping animals alive. Elephant dung helps
rainforest and savanna trees grow, which trap carbon dioxide in the
“Elephants play an important part in carbon capture and therefore have
underlying value from carbon. With each [live] elephant being valued at
$1.75 million in terms of carbon sequestration, it would be beneficial for
countries with elephants to lobby for such an exchange for their living
elephant populations and campaign for a sponsored burn of stockpiles,” she
said in an email.
Aside from selling ivory, then, selling natural carbon offsets to
industrialized countries to fund conservation might be another—and less
controversial—way to help save Africa’s elephants.