The just ended inaugural Africa Wildlife Economy Summit held in Zimbabwe seems to have concluded in an anti-climax.
From there being no official resolutions or communique despite four presidents being in attendance, the event left many unanswered questions even as it sought to have new conservation models for Africa to benefit local communities more.
But in a twist of events, it instead raised the possibility of a conflict over trade in ivory due to plans to legalise the trade by four Southern Africa countries.
In a move viewed by a section of conservationists as likely to drive heightened poaching activities on elephants and rhinos, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia are pushing to be allowed to sell ivory and rhino horn stockpiles.
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Last week, while officially opening the AU-UN Africa Wildlife Economic Summit in Victoria Falls Zimbabwe, President Emerson Mnangagwa called on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to remain a regulatory institution as opposed to a policy maker.
His views were supported by leaders of the other countries who attended the summit except Angola whose elephant population is low due to a long period of civil war that saw wildlife migrate. Mnangagwa revealed that Zimbabwe has a stockpile worth Sh60 billion which it desires to sell to fund conservation activities.
“If we are allowed, the revenue we derive from this sale is enough to fund our conservation efforts for the next two decades,” said Mnangagwa.
The plan is expected to ignite debate over trade in ivory even as CITES holds a summit in August this year where the countries are expected to make a formal request again after denial of the same two years ago.
Kenya has - alongside 28 other African nations - on the contrary, applied to have the African elephant elevated to appendix one of the protected animals which means enhanced protection measures than currently.
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The head of Kenyan delegation Inspector General (rtd) Joseph Boinnet who is the chief administrative secretary in the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism, however, said he could not comment yet because he was still studying the development and view of the Southern African countries.
“We cannot comment now but we shall call you when we are ready to (comment),” barked a stern rather defensive, Boinnet when approached for an interview. Kenya has a policy that bans trade in ivory.
But Mnangagwa had no kind words for Kenya's counter application to have enhanced protection.
"Kenya has chosen not to benefit while we, on the other hand, want to benefit; instead of burning we want to sell," said the Zimbabwean president during a press briefing.
He insisted that Zimbabwe has an excess of 30,000 elephants leading to increased human-wildlife conflict and part of the plans to decongest was by donating some to Angola to restock.
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In an attempt to justify sustainability of the sales, he stated, "Elephants will continue to die and we have these quantities of ivory because we have been keeping them due to the ban in trade."
But conservationists quickly poked holes in the idea terming it a threat to wildlife. Pat Awori a director at Pan African African Wildlife Conservation Network based in Kenya argues that it is not possible to have such an arrangement because the elephant numbers cannot sustain such trade and will quickly drive elephants to extinction.
“Ban on ivory trade in was put in place when elephant populations declined significantly from 170,000 to less than 20,000 in just over ten years,” says Awori.
She argues that since elephants cannot die fast enough to sustain the demand that will have been created, the other option will be poaching which will affect countries like Kenya.
“Innovative ways to have communities benefit must not involve the need to sell ivory,” asserted Awori adding that before the summit she attended public participation forum in Victoria Falls where she never heard locals giving sale of ivory or killing elephants as a solution to human-wildlife conflict.
Mnagangwa’s sentiments come at a time when there is increased debate on how communities benefit from conservation efforts, especially in protected areas.
“Conservation of African species needs to make sense in Africa,” said Mnangagwa.
Botswana also supports the move to ensure that local communities benefit from conservation which is a far cry from models where parks are largely inaccessible to locals.
“We need to streamline this and assure communities in ways that are verifiable and this could include questioning the challenge of any abrogation of rights,” said Mokgweetsi Masisi, president of Botswana who insisted that some of the ivory have to be sold to benefit the communities to help with conservation.
The president of Namibia, Hage Geingob pointed out that people whose lives have been destroyed by animals need compensation and wondered where governments should get that money from.
“Where is that money going to come from?” he questioned.
Southern Africa has over half of all elephants in Africa.
Mnangagwa added that population increase is putting a lot of pressure and there is a need to have a model acceptable to countries in conservation and to other participants in CITES.
He said “26 per cent of our land is conserved for animals and I do not see us decreasing or increasing it. It is us who can regulate the animals because they cannot regulate us and let us not have one rule for any situation but make rules as per the situation.”
In 2016, Kenya burnt over 100 tonnes of ivory worth over Sh10 billion shillings just to affirm its commitment to conserving wildlife.
Ivonne Higuero the secretary general of CITES says all the proposals are put to a vote and 183 member nations vote with two-thirds majority carrying the day.