Zoos Face Ban On Importing African Elephants Captured From The Wild

Baby elephants are targeted for capture, an event that can leave them traumatized. Four Oaks/Shutterstock

The 18th meeting of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is currently underway in Geneva, Switzerland. Representatives from over 180 countries have come together to attempt to tackle the extinction crisis by re-assessing regulations on wildlife trade.

In a “historic win” for conservationists, the results of the convention’s first vote are in, with a majority voting to end the capture and sale of wild African elephants for use in zoos. The vote is preliminary and still needs to be approved by the full conference over the next few days, but with 46 countries in favor, 18 against, and 19 abstaining, the results look promising.

“It’s a huge step forward,” Iris Ho, a senior policy specialist at Humane Society International (HSI), told Bloomberg. “It’s really historic that the majority of the parties present recognized that African elephants should not be captured in the wild, sent to zoos and be kept in captivity for the rest of their lives.”

Where African elephants are in short supply, such as the western, central, and eastern parts of the continent, trade in the creatures has long been banned. However, southern Africa boasts healthier, denser elephant populations, with Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa being home to almost half of the world’s African elephants. The new ban would affect Botswana and Zimbabwe, which have the most elephants, only allowing the movement of elephants to conservation areas in their natural habitat.

Much of the demand for the animals comes from China, and Zimbabwe has sold over 100 wild-caught baby elephants to Chinese zoos in the last seven years. Elephants are incredibly intelligent, highly social creatures, so champions of animal welfare have slated the removal of vulnerable calves from their natural surroundings and sentencing them to a life in captivity as cruel.

“Calves suffer psychological and physical harm when taken from their mothers,” elephant biologist Audrey Delsink, director of wildlife for HSI Africa, said in a statement. “Zoos and other captive facilities force these calves to live in an unnatural, unhealthy environment that does not meet their complex needs.”

The trade in elephants (and their ivory) is a complex topic of debate, with African nations often defending their right to manage their own wildlife without intervention from other countries. Various nations in southern Africa are keen to relax the ban on ivory sales so that they can shift their highly valuable stockpiles, but black market demands for ivory in Asia are driving elephant poaching. The current CITES meeting will discuss potentially listing mammoths as a threatened species. Many traffickers pass off the tusks of a freshly poached elephant as mammoth ivory, so there is a need to better regulate the mammoth ivory trade.  

The vote to end the capture and sale of live elephants to foreign zoos is a step forward for both conservation and animal welfare. The ban will need to be officially approved through a plenary vote, so time will tell if it is actually put into action.

With over a million species at risk thanks to human activity, this may well be the most crucial year for CITES yet. The committee will assess creatures plummeting towards extinction due to overharvesting, such as sharks, and evaluate a total of 56 proposed changes to how species – from lizards to giraffes – are protected.

"Nature's dangerous decline is unprecedented," CITES Secretary General Ivonne Higuero told the conference, warning that “business as usual is no longer an option.”

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