Botswana breaks ranks with neighbours on ivory trade ahead of UN meeting

GABORONE — Botswana, home to the world’s largest elephant population, will break ranks with its southern African neighbours and not support bids at the next UN conference to allow sales of ivory, its president says.

Trade in ivory will take centre stage at the meeting of the UN’s Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Johannesburg from September 24 to October 5.

Environment Minister Edna Molewa said on Tuesday the Southern African Development Community would take a united stand and support Namibian and Zimbabwean proposals to be allowed to sell ivory, a coveted commodity used for carving and jewellery.

But Botswana President Ian Khama has said his nation will not support loosening restrictions on the trade.

“We’re opposed to that…. We need to keep elephants on Appendix I so that there’s no trade in ivory,” he said in an interview. Animals listed on Cites’ Appendix I are afforded the highest level of protection and global trade in products derived from them is prohibited.

Botswana will be joining Kenya and other African nations seeking to snuff the trade out completely.

Southern Africa’s elephant populations — with notable exceptions such as Mozambique — have grown or stabilised, in contrast to the rest of the continent, where the animals are being depleted by poachers to feed an illicit market with the bulk of the demand from Asia.

“We shouldn’t think that because we are doing well we should be selfish,” Khama said.

Opponents are concerned that if Cites allows ivory to be traded, even from stockpiles and as a one-off, it would send a signal that it is socially acceptable, which could spur demand and further poaching.

“We are on this continent and if we support an act or a view that may see us have some temporary benefit but yet it encourages the illegal trade, it means other countries that are struggling with their populations are going to suffer,” Khama said.

“It means other countries that are struggling with their populations are going to suffer, and one day if their animals become extinct, and we still have viable populations, all the guns will now be focused on us,” he said.

Botswana is a sparsely populated, arid and land-locked nation with about a third of Africa’s elephants.

Botswana’s elephant numbers fluctuate between 140,000 and 200,000, depending on the season as the animals move back and forth across borders. Sandwiched between Namibia and Zimbabwe, many of its elephants cross into their territories.

The global ban on trade in ivory products — which does not apply to domestic markets — was imposed in 1989 in response to a wave of poaching. One-off auctions from Southern African stockpiles have since been held in 1999 and 2008.

Molewa had said the sale would be to support the communities affected by living near elephants. “If you look at the communities that are bearing the brunt of living with these animals, their ecological systems are degraded and they lose food security and grazing lands,” she said.

She said “we are quite optimistic” the proposals would pass but expected tough negotiations.


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