Overrun with Elephants, Zimbabwe Demands Legal Ivory Sales

By Naftali Mungai

HARARE, Zimbabwe, January 17, 2001 (ENS) - The Zimbabwean government has renewed its demand for legal ivory sales following what authorities say is the swelling of its elephant population. After a single permit under international law issued in 1999, further legal sales are prohibited.

Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management acting director (retired) Brigadier E.W. Kanhanga says that the country's wildlife sanctuaries can no longer hold the elephants which have increasingly become a real danger not only to human beings, but also to the environment and other wild animals.

"We have reached a point where we are saying we do not know what to do with the elephant population here. To say that we have too many elephants would be an understatement," says Kanhanga.

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African elephant in Zimbabwe (Photo courtesy WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey)
His sentiments are supported by evidence on the ground, and by the opinions of ecologists and environmentalists in Zimbabwe. Agreement with Kanhanga's attitude is very clear in communities living adjacent to wildlife sanctuaries in Zimbabwe.

Environmental degradation caused by elephants was evident during a recent tour of the country's national parks in the Zambezi Valley by Kenyan and Zimbabwean journalists.

At the moment, Zimbabwe says that it has 84,000 elephants, almost three times Kenya's elephant population of 30,000. The last elephant census, conducted by the department of national parks and wildlife in conjunction with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) by way of sample aerial strip and block count techniques, revealed the 84,000 figure.

Experts say that Zimbabwe's annual elephant growth rate is five percent - about 4,200 elephants are born every year.

The elephant range within Zimbabwe is estimated at 78,550 square kilometers (30,328 square miles). Of this area, a little more than half is within public lands set aside for parks and wildlife.

Within the national parks, which account for about 50 percent of these public lands, all species of animals, including the elephants, are totally protected except for management activities designed to maintain biological diversity.

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African elephant feeding (Photo courtesy WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey)
Outside these public lands, elephants compete with humans for land, water, food and other resources. An adult elephant consumes up to 200 litres (53 gallons) of water per day. In total, the elephants take 70 percent of all the plant food in the wild leaving all the other animals to share the remaining 30 percent.

World renowned elephant conservationist Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of the organization Save the Elephants, conducted an independent survey in Gonarezhou and produced a higher figure than that of the Zimbabwean authorities.

However, Douglas-Hamilton speaks for many critics of a legalized ivory trade when opposes it on the grounds that "corruption has always surrounded the ivory trade" and that permitting legal trade in ivory "will signal to the world that the African elephant is no longer endangered."

"We feel that this will trigger a fatal demand for ivory," Douglas-Hamilton says, "especially in emerging eastern economies, and risk a renewed holocaust."

But officials in Harare say the elephants have become the most dominant threat not only to humans, but also to the environment within and outside the national parks.

In the huge Mana Pools National Park, journalists observed that the elephant has virtually destroyed the vegetation, and all the other animals are now in danger because of lack of food. The park has 3,000 elephants but can sustain only 700.

Hwange, Zimbabwe's largest national park, is currently home to 45,000 elephants when it should hold only 15,000, wildlife officials say. The result has been environmental destruction of such proportion that the lives of other animals such as the black rhino, one of the world's most endangered species, are now under threat.

"To say that we have many elephants is in fact an understatement. What we want the world to know is that we have reached a point where we are saying we do not know what to do with the elephant population here," says M.T. Choto, the deputy director of Zimbabwe's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management.

The government has tried to offer some of the elephants free to facilities the West but so far, there have been no takers. Zimbabwe says it costs about $500,000 to translocate one adult elephant from Hwange to Gonarezhou national park, 250 kilometres away, costs which the southern African country reeling from an under performing economy and a broke government can ill afford.

"People make a lot of noise when a five-year old elephant is killed, yet no one gives a damn when the same kid elephant destroys a 1,000 year-old boabab tree," says E.W. Kanhanga, acting director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. The country, on the other hand, has huge stocks of ivory that it could sell to get badly needed foreign exchange.

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Elephants in Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park (Photo courtesy Zambezi Safari & Travel Co.)
As the elephant population swells, authorities say that there is a matched accumulation of ivory from natural mortality from both within and outside Zimbabwe's national parks.

The accumulation is about 10 tons per year with about 50 percent coming from natural mortality and animal problem control. Zimbabwe's ivory stocks currently stand at 24,000 kilograms and cost the country US$35,000 to manage annually.

The southern African countries of Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia that harvested and sold the so-called "managed ivory" under a one time permit in 1999 believe that they should be allowed to use their natural resources, including elephants, in a sustainable manner.

"Wildlife is a renewable resource. If utilised properly and in a sustainable manner, it will go a long way towards improving our people's life as a country and a continent," he says. "We want to make use of this resource which we have in abundance," argues Kanhanga. "The fact that our elephant population is increasing should mean that we have put in place proper and working protection systems. We believe this is something good ... a plus, which those opposed to our call should reward us for."

Kenya has been a prominent critic of the sale of ivory by the three southern African countries and has persistently objected to the reclassification of the African elephant from a highly endangered species to one whose population can be managed and trade in its body parts allowed.

Zimbabwean communities say they want the elephant population to be reduced to a manageable number. Roaming in search of the fast decreasing food and water, elephants trample crops, property and sometimes fatally injure and maim people.

"The elephant population should be reduced so that we can be able to live together peacefully because if we plant our crops, the elephants come and destroy them and we will not have anything to harvest," said one villager.

However, Zimbabwe's position is precarious because it is bound by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulations that do not permit killing of elephants for the international ivory market. During the April 2000 CITES meeting at the United Nations Environment Programme head office in Nairobi, CITES continued the total ban on the sale of ivory that has been in place since 1990.

The Kenya Wildlife Society (KWS) was joined by western environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the WWF. The local media lobbied for Kenya's position.

South Africa, which also wants to sell some of its ivory stockpile, joined its neighbours Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe and fought a bruising battle to place the elephant in a category that would allow for the monitored trade in ivory.

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Male African elephants grow the ivory tusks at the center of the controversy. (Photo courtesy WWF-Canon/Jeffrey McNeely)
The WWF has rejected the requests for ivory trade by Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Effective monitoring systems, together with an agreed mechanism to trigger remedial action as necessary, and effective controls and law enforcement, are essential, the WWF argued. These measures are needed to ensure that any future legal international trade in ivory from some range states will not adversely impact endangered elephant populations in others, the conservation groups maintain. New long term international monitoring systems are under development but were not yet operational.

Until these systems are functional and generating substantial and representative data on elephant populations and rates of poaching, the Parties to the CITES treaty will not have information needed to support decisions on remedial action in the event of any problems with compliance or potential detriment to the species, the WWF and other conservation groups believe.

Zimbabwe's minister of environment and tourism, Francis Nhema, argues that the elephants are themselves destroying the environment. "The situation is unfortunate," he said, "because by continuously keeping the high number of elephants, we are destroying the environment we yearn to protect and endangering the same elephant that we seek to preserve."

Zimbabwe sees the sustainable utilization of Africa's resources, including the elephants, as one way in which Africa can solve perennial economic problems. Zimbabweans say it makes no economic sense to spend hard earned currency preserving ivory stockpiles which could instead be sold to generate foreign exchange for Africa's economies.

They see a conspiracy by CITES and the international community to deny them permission to selectively trade in ivory as a smokescreen to impoverish Africa.

"Why is Australia allowed to trade in kangaroo and products and Africa is being denied?" asks Choto. He claims that the same people who are against their move to sell ivory are also responsible for driving a wedge between Africa's elephant range states.

Some Zimbabweans believe that many decisions about Africa's environment and policies are made in European boardrooms without the participation of the African nations that feel their consequences.

"They make decisions and impose them on us. And we are supposed to swallow them without a question," says a Zimbabwean officer. He is also of the opinion that the same forces are working against Africa's renaissance.

Zimbabwe has an immediate uphill task of convincing other African range states, starting with Kenya, to understand its line of thought.

"How can we be talking about using our resources sustainably together as a continent when Kenya is busy burning all its ivory in its stock? I don't see us reaching a compromise when our brother looks the other way when called to negotiate," Choto says.