Why It's So Hard to Stop Zimbabwe's Export of Baby Elephants

The export of dozens of elephants is legal under the global treaty that governs the endangered species trade.
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A family of African elephants drinks together at a water hole in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. Dozens of baby elephants are slated to be exported from Zimbabwe.


When it recently came to light that Zimbabwe is planning to export dozens of baby elephants, conservation organizations, elephant experts, and concerned citizens expressed horror and condemnation.

Such export is legal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the global treaty organization that sets rules for and monitors trade in live animals.

Clear facts around Zimbabwe's planned export are hard to come by, but CITES confirms that a number of captive elephants are destined for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Various news reports say China and France are also interested in importing some of the young elephants.

National Geographic asked John Scanlon, secretary general of CITES, a post he's held since 2010, to clarify the role of the convention.

Speaking from his home in Geneva, the headquarters of CITES, Scanlon explained that his priorities are to represent the convention globally, to enhance the depth and breadth of partner agencies (such as Interpol) that help implement CITES's policies, and to effectively manage the secretariat itself.

In a story published here on December 17, CITES's chief scientist, David Morgan, said Zimbabwe had not directly communicated to the secretariat office that it was planning to export elephants. A month later, has the secretariat confirmed how many elephants have been captured or are poised for export?

No. The intentions on the part of Zimbabwe have not been formally indicated to us, so we've read the media articles as well. But Zimbabwe isn't obliged to communicate that to us. What was formally communicated was put in our public statement, which was that seven captive elephants are heading to the UAE. But we don't have any other information about numbers or destinations.

Given that a number of media reports include quotes from Zimbabwe's own tourism minister saying that the country is exporting elephants, with France and China also cited as destinations, was your office lied to?

No. We haven't been lied to.

We have to continually ask whether or not any permits have been received. So we're hearing the expression of an intention to export. We've checked with the UAE, and they've explained what they're intending to import. We've checked with France-we're not aware of any request there to import. Or China. But that's not to say it won't happen. Because anybody could in the future say that they wish to import X number of elephants from Zimbabwe.

We're not aware of what is going on in the background.

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This baby elephant was exported by Zimbabwe in 2012 to a zoo in China. The fate of exported elephants is often unknown.


Explain what CITES is and how it came about.

CITES is an international agreement, a treaty. The origins of it started with the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] passing some resolutions in the 1960s. There was a concern about unregulated wildlife trade and the impact that was having on wild populations.

At the plenipotentiary conference hosted by the United States in 1973, when the text was adopted, the U.S. was one of the few countries—if not the only country—that was keeping statistics on import of wildlife. (Read Scanlon's speech celebrating the 40th anniversary of CITES.)

The volume of trade into the U.S. was huge. And they shared their data to say that if we're not able to regulate this trade, we'll unwittingly—or wittingly—drive species to extinction because we have no idea what we're doing. We're just exporting or importing en masse. So the origins are that we had to have an international convention that was able to regulate this trade with the intention that it wouldn't drive species to extinction.

If you look at how the convention was structured, there are some species already threatened with extinction, and for those we should have no commercial trade—they're too vulnerable. That's 3 percent of the species, and they're on Appendix I. The other species—they aren't yet threatened with extinction but could be if we don't strictly regulate the trade—go on Appendix II.

Some people are agitated that CITES isn't going as far as they'd like. Well, OK, let's get rid of CITES; let's denounce it en masse and be done with it. Then anyone can trade with anyone in any volume with no oversight, with no requirements for legal acquisition or scientific findings, with all Appendix I species being open for commercial trade.

Within the context you've described, what can CITES do to stop the Zimbabwe trade—if it wanted to?

There's no authority under the convention and international law to stop this trade.

The rules put in place by the parties under the convention provide that the Zimbabwe population of African elephants is under Appendix II.

There's no international court you can go to to seek an injunction to stop an individual trade transaction. The secretariat has no authority to intervene. The philosophy that underpins the convention is: international cooperation and national action. (Read related remarks by Scanlon here.)

So the international community places the main obligation on the national authorities.

If there's a failure to comply with national legislation, you have remedies at the national level, in national courts. You can challenge national decisions as to whether they've followed the right procedures or implemented their obligations. This depends on the countries' constitutional system.

Where there are cases with failure to comply with the convention, there's a compliance process, and the standing committee can propose a trade suspension.

In addition, there's an oversight process, so if the volume of trade looks unsustainable, and if the answers aren't adequate, there can be a trade suspension. There are 30 trade suspensions in place at the moment.

I think sometimes what people assume is that the CITES convention has established an international authority either to screen and legally validate or invalidate permits or to take action to prevent a trade taking place. That international authority has not been created under CITES. But CITES does oblige parties to create national authorities that carry out these tasks.

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A young elephant, exported in 2012 by Zimbabwe to a Chinese zoo, stands alone in a concrete enclosure.


Even if you don't have authority to stop Zimbabwe's elephant transfer, aren't you morally obligated—as the head of the global trade treaty—to advise against such a controversial export?

It's not for us as a secretariat to act other than in accordance to what our parties have agreed through their regulatory framework. The only parties that could stop this trade are the exporting state or the importing states.

If we ultimately feel that the framework needs to be revisited, we do have the authority to bring that to attention at the meetings of the Conference of the Parties (CoP), which happen every three years. It's only the Conference of the Parties that can change the rules. [The next CoP is set to take place in Cape Town, South Africa, in September 2016.]

We don't have the authority to impose our own ethical or moral viewpoint of the world over a decision of the parties. We're actually obliged to respect the rule of law and act accordingly and to do our best to ensure that people understand the convention and what the parties have put into place.

I think a secretariat loses its way if it takes its own view about what is morally or ethically right or wrong in terms of a particular trade. One day you'll be happy with a secretariat that's less oriented to trade, and not so happy with a secretariat that's pro-trade.

What's the likelihood that at the next CoP a robust discussion will be had about the inhumane treatment of Zimbabwe's baby elephants in country and possibly by then also in captivity in the UAE, China, or elsewhere? Will you personally put such a discussion on the agenda?

The next CoP is open to any of the 180 states that are party to CITES to put forward draft decisions or resolutions. There are rules that govern how and when such proposals are made and how they're decided upon, which need to be followed.

The secretariat has the power to invite the attention of parties to matters pertaining to the aims of CITES and to make recommendations on the implementation of the aims and provisions of the convention. We also comment on any draft proposals put forward by a party or parties.

All the facts of this matter are not fully known as yet.

In my research for the December 17 story about Zimbabwe's current export plan, I couldn't confirm exactly how many elephants Zimbabwe had previously exported to China, in 2012, or what's happened to them since. Does this information black hole point to a failure by CITES to monitor the trade?

I don't know what you mean by failing. It is what it is. CITES has not failed, in that the information that was required was provided. And under the convention text, what parties agree to do is report annually on the number and types of trades. Excluded from that is a requirement to report on the sorts of additional details of what you'd like to see.

What you're saying is that you'd like the scope of the convention to be expanded, so that in addition to the number of animals traded from one state to another, you'd like information on the exact destination and the whereabouts and the condition of the animals traded, yes?

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A group of elephants enjoy their natural habitat near Lake Kariba, in Zimbabwe.


I'm asking if you think that should be in the treaty.

The issue here is that you have to respect state sovereignty—the states have decided how much sovereignty they're prepared to give away for trade they could otherwise allow unfettered. And there are many different opinions among the 180 parties to the convention, as there are in the wider community.

NDFs—non-detriment findings—are at the heart of CITES. For Appendix II elephants, a trade must not be detrimental to the species, and the destination must be appropriate and acceptable. But when a willing buyer is matched with a willing seller, what's the incentive to take these requirements seriously?

These are national obligations. So it's the citizens of the country of origin and destination that will ensure their countries are doing what they agreed to do. Citizens within those states have whatever remedies are available to them within their domestic circumstances.

With NDFs, it's seen as a sovereign process—the state conducts the NDF and determines its adequacy.

At our last CoP, in Bangkok in 2013, after many years of effort we got a recommendation adopted that includes criteria about what an NDF should include. That was a breakthrough because previously states weren't prepared to accept guidance on what an NDF should look like.

But speaking of Zimbabwe, when you have a dictatorship like Robert Mugabe's, those checks and balances could go out the window.

What are you looking for the international community to do? Because it's Zimbabwe's responsibility to do the NDF and to issue the permit. And they've advised us in relation to the trade to the UAE that they've done these various steps.

So Zimbabwe isn't violating the CITES treaty—but is it ethically defensible to trade in baby elephants?

I obviously have my own views of these things, but I'll express them when I've left the job. My job is to honor the convention and do my best to make sure that parties do what they all agreed to do.

I need to park my personal ethical opinion in the corner. Parties expect me to administer their rules fairly and honestly and not insert my own viewpoint into that. Whatever my personal view on whether I think this is a good trade or not, these are rules under the convention.

You can put a lot of energy into me and send me emails and Tweets, and I respect a thorough debate, but it doesn't change my legal authority. I don't have a legal authority to intervene.

They wouldn't welcome my opinion. They want me to be the secretary general and administer the convention.

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