The triennial meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty that regulates the trade of wild plants and animals, are among the most significant wildlife conferences in the world. At this year’s event, which spanned from August 17 through 28 in Geneva, CITES member nations passed a series of major conservation measures: a rare Caribbean gecko, sharks, rays and giraffes have all been granted key protections, to name a few examples. And on Tuesday, the conference approved one of its more controversial measures, imposing a near-total ban on transporting wild African elephants to zoos and other captive facilities.
According to Morgan Windsor of ABC News, the new regulations were approved after “days of contentious debate.” Initially, the vote sought to limit trade in African elephants to their wild habitats, which would effectively put a stop to the practice of capturing the animals and sending them to zoos.
The European Union, which boasts a 28-strong voting bloc, initially indicated that it would oppose the measure, prompting a public outcry led by such prominent figures as Jane Goodall. The EU changed its stance after an amendment was added to the text, introducing a loophole stipulating that elephants should remain in their “natural and historic range in Africa, except in exceptional circumstances where ... it is considered that a transfer to [off-site] locations will provide demonstrable [on-site] conservation benefits for African elephants.” Any decision in that regard must be made in consultation with the CITES Animals Committee and the IUCN’s Elephant Specialist Group.
Ultimately, the measure passed with 87 parties in favor, 29 against and 25 abstaining, according to the Agence France-Presse. The United States was among those that opposed the new restrictions. So did Zimbabwe, which, along with Botswana, is a major provider of wild African elephants to overseas zoos.
The new rules only apply to African elephants, since Asian elephants are already subject to strict international trade regulations. But as Dina Fine Maron of National Geographic reports, Zimbabwe and several other southern African countries maintain that selling some of their elephants is a necessity. For one, it helps offset the costs of conservation efforts at home, and also prevents the animals from spilling over onto human lands, where they might destroy crops and even harm people. Tinashe Farawo, a spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, also noted that the elephants are an important economic resource for a struggling country.
“We have too many [elephants] so selling them should not be a problem for anyone,” Farawo said, according to Al Jazeera. “Why should we continue to impoverish our people when we have the resource?”
But conservationists have strongly condemned the practice of removing wild African elephants, which are typically babies when they are sold off to zoos, from their habitats and their herds. Study after study has shown that elephants are highly intelligent, empathetic and social creatures, and taking an elephant away from its family can have long-standing detrimental effects.
“Like us, elephants feel joy when reunited with family and grief when brutally separated. Like us, they need friends and space to thrive,” Joyce Poole, an elephant behavior expert and National Geographic Explorer, tells Maron. “The physical and psychological harm caused to individual elephants by their traumatic capture and their impoverished lives in captivity is well-documented.”
African elephants are considered vulnerable, with some 415,000 left in the wild—down from as many as 10 million in 1930. Poaching and habitat loss pose significant threats to the animals in their natural habitats, but many advocates maintain that placing elephants in zoos is not an effective conservation method. In fact, a 2008 study found that life in zoos is associated with a shorter lifespan for both African elephants—17 years, versus 36 years in the wild. The IUCN says that it “does not endorse the removal of African elephants from the wild for any captive use.”
Audrey Delsink, the Africa wildlife director at Humane Society International, said it was “disappointing” that the CITES decision leaves open the possibility of trading African elephants to captive facilities for “conservation benefits.” But she nevertheless called the new measure “momentous.”
“[W]e are relieved by its passing,” Delsink said. “Speaking personally as an elephant field biologist I am jubilant that we have secured this victory for all the elephants who will now be spared the ordeal of being ripped away from their families.”