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Published in The Cape Argus, Monday July 1st, 2013

On June 20th a small gathering took place in Cape Town to discuss a new spectre rearing menacingly from the north and east of our borders. The caucus compiled of solicitous representatives from a wide range of fields - academics, scientists, researchers, journalists, businessmen and NGO’s – and the topic of their agenda? Ivory. Although current statistics coming out of central and west Africa are largely unreliable, it is a given that around half the elephants in those regions have been wiped out by a massive campaign to secure their ivory for trade to the East. It is also a given that the demand for that ivory is reaching colossal levels as the inordinate middle class Asian population’s penchant for the product either as a financial hedge, or as status or religious symbols goes astral. Currently the rhino crisis is making the headlines in this country with a staggering 428 killed this year already and the death toll on track to reach a thousand by the end of 2013. But it’s the elephants to the north of our borders that are really feeling the heat, suffering almost ten times the death toll and while their overall population is far greater than that of rhinos, the current figures suggest that the timeline to extinction is running parallel, if not faster than their smaller ungulates. At the moment the elephant scourge is not a South African problem and there was some debate as to whether the spectre would indeed migrate south. The situation in politically destabilised countries like the Central African Republic make mass poaching relatively easy, but on the other hand the extensive, porous border along the Kruger Park has failed in securing rhino, so there is no reason to doubt that should the poachers turn their attention south – and the group is in doubt that they will – we will be seeing the murderous incursions across our borders ramped up to an unprecedented scale. Already, we are witnessing a southward trend as reports are coming in of increased poaching activity in Zambia as far south as the Zambezi and even across the river in the Caprivi. Botswana is next and in Zimbabwe evidence shows the same trend. It is therefore only a matter of time before the rhino crisis becomes an elephant crisis as well.

Hence the meeting of minds. Although, just a first gathering, the assembly is designed to pre-empt the pending crisis and prevent, as best as possible, the scourge of mass elephant poaching in crossing our borders. During the proceedings it was unanimously agreed that the primary strategy to curb the pending menace was to insist on a total ban on ivory and move elephants up from their current CITES listing of Appendix II, which allows trade in their products, to the Appendix I, which makes all trade illegal. This view runs contrary to a growing perception among government authorities, some conservation groups and sectors of the public, especially when it comes to rhino horn, that a legalisation in the trade of wildlife products will satiate the demand from the east and ultimately prevent the extinction of the animals concerned. The argument also points to increased revenue garnered by selling off our considerable stockpiles of ivory as well as that gleaned from elephants that have died of ‘natural’ causes. In 2016 CITES’ triennial Conference of the Parties sits again to deliberate on the matter of legalising trade in ivory and this group’s mandate is to insist on challenging this trend by campaigning for Appendix I status for elephants. From now until that date this group will be formulating and implementing a multi-pronged campaign targeting all influential sectors in South Africa, from lobbying government to on the ground events such as marches, fun-runs etc, all aimed at providing awareness of the plight of elephants (and ergo rhinos, lions and other similarly endangered animals). One of the slogans oft used by pro-trade lobbyists is “If it pays, it stays”, indicating that if a wild animal can produce socio-economic benefits for humans it’s existence will be secured. But, as one of the renowned journos of this group points out the reverse of that slogan, is, in fact, a far more poignant message – “if it stays, it pays” meaning that a live elephant is more economically beneficial than a dead one as the revenue from tourism versus the sale of ivory is much, much greater. The aim is to compile and disseminate these economic statistics as proof against the pro-trade lobby notwithstanding the intrinsic value that these majestic beings mean to this country, the continent and the global community at large. The group is also mindful that its not just elephants, and the plight of rhino, lions and other threatened animals are to inextricably linked to this campaign. This was an embryonic gathering but it means business. Watch this space.