CITES proposal preview: Easing the suffering of captured live elephants in trade

An elephant is made to perform in another zoo.You already know that elephants across Africa are being slaughtered for their ivory tusks at the rate of about one every 15 minutes.

The Great Elephant Census -- the first-ever continental-scale scientific survey of African savannah elephants -- confirmed that the status of African elephants is even more precarious than previously thought.

When you add to poaching the other serious and widespread threats to the survival of wild elephants, from habitat loss and degradation to injuries and deaths suffered in conflicts with humans over food and water resources, you can see how urgent it is to take whatever practical and reasonable steps we can to protect these creatures.

But let’s not forget the welfare of elephants that are still alive.

One such proposal – regarding trade in live elephants (CoP17 Doc. 57.4) -- was put forward by Burkina Faso and several other African nations.

Their document proposes amending the existing language in Resolution Conf. 10.10 (Rev. CoP16) to better protect live elephants in trade by recommending that:

  1. “all elephant range States have in place legislative, regulatory, enforcement, or other measures to prevent illegal and detrimental trade in live elephants and to minimize the risk of injury, damage to health or cruel treatment of live elephants in trade;”
  2. Parties agree that, “in relation to trade in live elephants taken from the wild, the only recipients that should be regarded as “appropriate and acceptable” (as referred to in Resolution Conf. 11.20) and “suitably equipped to house and care for” those elephants in accordance with Article III, Para 3(6) of the Convention are in situ conservation programmes or secure areas in the wild within the species’ natural range, except in the case of temporary transfers in emergency situations.”

These changes are an attempt to address ongoing concerns about both the conservation of wild elephants in their natural habitats and the welfare of individual elephants and family groups that are caught up in international trade in live elephants.

While CITES has regulations in place for animal transport and there are humane ways to capture elephants that minimize their pain and suffering, major animal welfare concerns remain.

It is well documented that the capture and transport of young African elephants is harmful to them on an individual basis, leading to trauma, high rates of mortality, injury and disease. Likewise, it is acknowledged by experts that the removal of individual elephants causes disruption and trauma to their mothers and family groups.

So everything that can be done should be done to maximize the welfare of live elephants if they absolutely must be moved.

Another thorny issue this proposal tries to tackle is the meaning of ‘acceptable and appropriate” destinations for captured elephants. Interpretations of this phrase are subjective. IFAW agrees that ‘acceptable and appropriate’ destinations that are “suitably equipped to house and care for”   live wild elephants should generally be limited to “in situ conservation programmes or secure areas in the wild within the species’ natural range….”

As an example of how subjective current CITES guidance is, consider the case of the 24 young elephants who were captured in the wild in Zimbabwe and sold to a safari park in China in July 2015. The governments of Zimbabwe and China both considered the safari park an ‘acceptable and appropriate’ destination that was “suitably equipped to house and care for” them. But a 25 September 2015 National Geographic article by Christina Russo reported that photographs of them taken in a quarantine facility indicate they suffered from wounds, mistreatment and ill health.

The position of the IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group is that captive breeding makes no effective contribution to conservation, and does not endorse the removal of African elephants from the wild for any captive use. Many animal welfare experts agree.

When you come right down to it, most zoos, even those attempting to exercise the industry’s best practices, cannot meet the physical and psychological needs of these highly intelligent and social animals. Elephants are best left in the wild where they can live in the family groups of their own choosing and eat, play and roam as they require.

--JK

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