On the 6th March 2022, the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) finally admitted in an emailed statement that it has exported 22 wild-caught elephants likely to Al Ain Zoo in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The exports were confirmed just one day before a meeting in Lyon, France of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), during which countries are set to examine the legality of Namibia’s actions.
The MEFT statement confirms more than a year of speculation that Namibia had always intended to export its elephants outside of Africa, as it has done in the recent past to Cuba and Mexico. However, technically, Namibia is only allowed to export live elephants to in situ conservation programmes (i.e. within the natural range of the species in Africa), according to the terms of the listing of their elephant population under CITES. Namibia is using a contested legal interpretation of these terms to justify sending wild, live-caught elephants to captive facilities outside of their natural range – an interpretation which is highly controversial.
Namibia’s announcement comes just one day before the 74th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee (SC74) begins this week in Lyon, France, which will specifically examine on Wednesday (March 9th) the legality of Namibia’s interpretation as it applies to exports of live elephants. Burkina Faso, an elephant range State that is participating in the meeting, has submitted a legal opinion to SC74 which demonstrates why these exports were – and are – carried out in violation of CITES rules.
The MEFT tries to justify the sales “as an intervention of increasing cases of human-wildlife conflict, particularly those involving elephants…”. However, all 22 elephants were captured from the Kamanjab commercial farming area, which is not well-populated by rural communities. It is an area, according to a report in 2021, that is part of the dry Kunene Region in north-west Namibia where elephant numbers are dangerously low. This is mainly due to years of drought and human-induced circumstances such as trophy hunting, persecution and natural habitat encroachment for farming activities.
According to Dr. Keith Lindsay, expert in elephant biology, these justifications do not stand. “Of major concern are the extremely low numbers of breeding bulls and high infant mortality rate (100% since 2014) of the population in this area of the Kunene Region. The MEFT’s plan to remove live elephants from this specific area runs counter to the conservation of this sub-population. And since the elephant population numbers are so low, incidences of human-elephant conflict (HEC) are correspondingly low, far lower than other parts of Namibia, especially in the north-east, where elephants roam across international borders”, he explains.
The elephants, according to the MEFT statement, were sold to a Namibian wildlife rancher, G.H. Odendaal, who then sold them on to the UAE. It seems strange that the MEFT allowed Odendaal as a private individual – who must have marked up the price for himself – to handle the exports rather than the MEFT dealing directly with the UAE. The move goes against the usual rhetoric that the government commercialises its wildlife in the name of poverty upliftment for rural communities. This export implies a lucrative transaction that only benefits an already prosperous white Namibian landowner.
“This government needs to be brought to book at the Standing Committee this week,” says Vera Weber, president of Fondation Franz Weber, “both for violating the CITES rules as well as threatening, under the pretext of solving HEC incidences, the viability of an elephant population already reeling from years of drought and human persecution. In 2019, a majority of CITES members banned the international trade in live, wild-caught elephants for captive use, including the EU which is leading a global drive to protect and preserve international biodiversity. This barbaric export of live elephants is likely to be condemned by policy-makers in Brussels, Paris, Berlin and far beyond.”