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Why the proposed ban of wildlife trade does not make sense to developing countries: The role of trade in maintaining healthy wildlife populations

By Nobuhle Mabhikwa-Zimbabwe Environmental Law AssociationB

In the last series of the blog I shared how the ban of wildlife trade does not make sense to developing countries. The focus was on how communities who depend  on revenue generated from the ban would be affected  if this happened. In this series allow me to share with you the ecological benefits that the trade brings to the sector and why I still feel the ban is not the best idea, rather my view is that we should continue to focus on coming up with an integrated approach that will deal with Illegal Wildlife Trade.  Wildlife Trade when well informed and well-regulated can be beneficial to both the host communities and the wildlife. In this series allow me to look at the elephant population and how the wildlife trade can help in addressing the challenges currently faced with the charismatic species in Zimbabwe. Keep in mind that if there is a total ban, the issues being raised will only be magnified. Living conditions for the animals will decrease, resulting in increased concerns on the inhumane treatment of the animals and more incidents of human and wildlife conflict.

Elephants in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has a proud history of effective elephant conservation. Elephant populations in most of Africa were reduced to very low numbers by the late 19th Century. The current conservation status of African elephants is that they are listed as Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List[1], as Endangered in CITES Appendix I[2], apart from the populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe that are listed under CITES Appendix II. In Zimbabwe, African elephants are not included in the list of “specially protected animals” in the Parks and Wild Life Act because of their high population. However, they are listed on the “Schedule of Animals with High Economic Valuefollowing a decision taken in 1997 by the Conference of the Parties to CITES. This means that while the Parties to CITES consider the African elephant in Zimbabwe as not threatened with extinction, it may become so if trade were not strictly regulated[3].

While many threats such as;

  • Illegal killing and the ivory trade;
  • The loss of habitat due to human settlement and agricultural expansion;
  • Human wildlife conflicts and ;
  • The legal population control (culling, sterilisation, birth control),  continue to pose a threat to the survival of elephants in Zimbabwe, the number of elephants in Zimbabwe is now an issue of concern. Elephants are a fascinating species but can also be destructive when they destroy crops, threaten livestock and even human lives.

Zimbabwe has 85,000 elephants but the country’s national parks and conservation areas’  carrying capacity can only cope with 55,000. Carrying capacity is a well-known ecological term that refers to the maximum population size of a species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment[4].  In 2019, more than 200 elephants died due to a lack of water at the country’s main conservation zones in Mana Pools and Hwange National Park[5]. Grazing lands and water have fast depleted. El Niño induced drought has worsened the already dire water situation in the country’s parks. With Climate change, droughts might increase affecting the survival of the elephants. Hence the ban of wildlife trade will only worsen the already overburdened ecosystem.. Maintaining healthy populations is key to integrated ecosystem management. Wildlife trade plays a key role in maintaining healthy populations as it enables the movement of elephants  from areas of high  concentration  to those of low concentration.  

Human and wildlife conflict

As Zimbabwe’s human population grows, elephant is being restricted to smaller areas and as their populations expand they increasingly move out of their designated habitat, and raid crops and sometimes threaten human lives. As a result in many rural areas where elephants exist in Zimbabwe, human-elephant conflicts are increasing, creating substantial negative attitudes to the conservation efforts of elephants. The affected people are often among the poorest rural farmers, which makes the issue complex in social and economic terms. Unresolved conflicts stimulate poaching or retaliation. Poachers or retaliators can be seen as “local heroes” because they provide meat to the communities and resolve the conflict. A major challenge for elephant management is keeping human-elephant conflicts to a minimum. To reduce it we need to continue allowing the trade of wildlife from regions of high concentration to those  of low concentration. In Zimbabwe , people killed by elephants in 2016 were 26, in 2017, they were 40, in 2018 they were 20, in 2019 they were 42.  For these four years, they give  a total of 128 people.  Injured by elephants, they total 98.  The livestock killed by wildlife; cattle in total for four years is 462, for donkeys, it is 94 and for goats, it is 544.  The Hwange District forms one of Zimbabwe’s four main wildlife regions and hence a focal point of human-wildlife conflict. With the above one can understand why the trade in wildlife should not be banned as it plays a key role in destocking animal populations that have the potential of imploding. If not for community benefit, the itis for their wellbeing and maintaining healthy populations. The total ban of wildlife trade will only result in more human wildlife conflict, illegal wildlife trade and destruction of community livelihoods.

Loss of diversity

Elephant impacts on woodlands and associated biodiversity is of concern.With overpopulation of the elephant’s species in Zimbabwe the animals are wreaking  havoc on the ecosystem and surrounding landscape. It has been reported that elephant’s destruction on woodlands has been great, in the process affecting other species that depend on the same woodlands for survival. In the course of their foraging, elephants often strip the bark of trees such as ancient baobabs and knob thorns — where birds of prey often make their nests — and marulas. The impact of elephant browsing on forest biodiversity is a function of their population density. In general terms, forest biodiversity is reduced where elephant density is high; not affected at low densities; and increased at intermediate densities[6]. It has been reported that high elephant densities lead to shifts in plant species composition in the teak and mopane woodlands[7]. For example, elephant damage can cause suppression of tree growth resulting in shrub and grass savanna in mopane woodlands. In the Hwange National Park and Mana Pools area, elephant damage is so high that Terminalia has become a dominant species in a teak forest. The continued destruction of wood lands will result in the loss of the indigenous species and forestry in Zimbabwe as we know it.

Maintaining healthy elephants

While we are proud of the successful conservation that has resulted in the current elephant numbers, we must note that the more the elephants are, the easier it is for lethal diseases to spread. Due to the increasing number of elephant populations in increasingly smaller areas, many elephant populations share limited resources. Overcrowding can lead to contamination of water resources and increased occurrences of parasitic diseases. Control of disease in wildlife is of considerable importance for managing risks to humans  and livestock as well as for the conservation of wildlife species themselves. Population reduction is a commonly employed strategy used to control disease in wildlife with the aim of reducing the number of infected animals and the overall size of key populations, leading to a reduction in rates of transmission, disease prevalence and risks to other populations[8].

Conclusion

Transparency and accountability remain key as Zimbabwe moves forwards in addressing the elephant population.  If we still want to see the charismatic and majestic elephants in the wild, holistic integrated wildlife management is key and trade is an integral part of it which we cannot do away with. While I have argued against the ban of wildlife trade, l am alive to the serious challenges posed by wildlife trade regulation. While the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), seeks to ensure sustainable international wildlife trade based on trade bans and controls, its effectiveness is questionable. The system is full of loopholes. Trading countries often ignore basic checks and balances such as verifying the authenticity of an import destination listed on an export permit. This allows the proliferation of illegal trade. This is further exacerbated by the restriction to access to information on wildlife trade contracts and revenue flows. Corruption in the source and destination countries has thus rendered the CITES listing approach ineffective. However, a total ban on the wildlife trade is not the answer. Hasty and blanket bans will not in any way improve community or wildlife welfare but will only have the undesirable effect of driving legal wildlife trade underground and further shrouding wildlife trade with secrecy. I am of the view that   prescribing a global wildlife trade policy is not feasible. Rather, my recommendations are that in order to effectively manage wildlife trade, interventions should go beyond mere regulation. The interventions should be integrated and multi-faceted reflecting the many faces of wildlife trade. As such, l recommend that further intensive research is required around these issues:

  1. The effective, application and impacts of CITES at national level. The research must go beyond a legal analysis of the legal framework but adopt a qualitative methodology to understand the situation on the ground within the wildlife sector.
  2. The key factors which undermine wildlife trade governance at the national level. Such research should focus on both the legal framework and institutional bottlenecks.
  3. The buy in of local communities as key wildlife stewards in the implementation of CITES is critical. Community involvement in determining sustainable harvest rates for, and adaptive management of CITES species is thus key and there is a need for community empowerment in decision making in this regard.
  4. Capacity building of the key law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system remain a vital cog in the monitoring and regulation of wildlife trade.
  5. Building strong institutions to counter corruption in the wildlife sector also is critical. A system of checks and balances is critical in this regard. It may thus be necessary to separate the scientific role of National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority from its management role. A scientific body which gathers science-based evidence in the regulation of wildlife trade under CITES and monitoring may be a progressive step.

[1]https://www.iucn.org/ssc-groups/mammals/african-elephant-specialist-group/african-elephant-database/iucn-red-list-threatened-species#:~:text=Mammals%20F%2DZ-,The%20IUCN%20Red%20List%20of%20Threatened%20Species,Red%20List%20of%20Threatened%20Species.

[2] https://cites.org/eng/gallery/species/mammal/african_elephant.html

[3] https://www.cites.org/eng/app/appendices.php

[4] http://peakoilbarrel.com/carrying-capacity-overshoot-and-species-extinction/

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/12/drought-kills-more-than-200-elephants-in-zimbabwe

[6] https://www.cbd.int/doc/nbsap/forestry/Zimbabwe.pdf

[7] https://www.cbd.int/doc/nbsap/forestry/Zimbabwe.pdf

[8] Anderson R (1991) Populations and infectious diseases: ecology or epidemiology? Journal of Animal Ecology 60: 1–50.

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