Cape Town - In the last two years, China
has imported more than 80 live Asian elephants from across its border in Laos and
almost 100 juvenile
African elephants from Zimbabwe. They were all destined for zoos throughout China.
According to wildlife
investigator and film-maker, Karl Ammann, the Laotian
Prime Minister last year publically declared the trade in live elephants illegal
under national laws. Furthermore, says Ammann, the transactions should not have
been possible under current international laws outlined by the
Convention in the Trade of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the global body governing the international
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elephants are considered a species threatened with extinction – CITES lists
them under Appendix I, meaning that commercial trade in Asian elephants is
prohibited unless the elephants are ‘leased’ for non-commercial purposes or
they originate from a CITES-approved facility of captive-bred animals. According
to Ammann, Laos does not have a single CITES-approved breeding facility.
Zimbabwe’s elephants, however, are listed under Appendix II. This means
that trade is allowed, provided the Zimbabwean authorities
do not deem it “detrimental to the survival of the
species” and that they are “satisfied the animals are legally obtained”.
There is no mention in the CITES regulations on the welfare or the
ecological issues that may arise from snatching juvenile elephants from their
family herds in the wild. What’s more, Zimbabwe alone determines whether the
trade is detrimental or whether they are legally obtained. There aren’t any
independent checks from the international community or CITES.
SEE: UPDATE: Confusion as Zimbabwe promises review of elephant exports amidst global condemnation
In 2016, China officially
imported 50 live elephants from Laos, as stated by the CITES trade database, while Ammann’s undercover interviews
with elephant handlers – or mahouts – on the China-Laotian border revealed a
further 30 went in 2017. Laos, however, has no record of the corresponding
then,” says Ammann, “has to be that a lot of these imports and exports were
done without the requisite CITES import and export permits.”
to a CITES-lead investigation
last year, “information
was made available to the Secretariat suggesting the possible leasing of
domesticated Asian elephants to China without CITES documentation.” Leasing of domestic
Asian elephants for non-commercial purposes is authorised by CITES, provided
permits for their export and import are provided.
‘leases’, however, are anything but non-commercial. Ammann discovered that some
zoos have paid Chinese middlemen up to 10 times as much as the latter paid
owners in Laos. So-called captive elephants in Laos sell for about R390 000
before being walked across the border into China.
Thereafter they are transported to receiving facilities, which buy them from
the agents for up to R3.9 million per animal.
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is a nice mark-up,” Ammann wrote in a previous article,
“and makes it exactly the kind of commercial transaction which under CITES
rules is not acceptable.”
CITES, however, has been slow
to react, and when it has, the reaction has been ineffective. In
July 2016, the CITES Secretariat noted “gaps in implementation” and recommended
that Laos “improve its compliance ability and law enforcement of illegal wild
animal and plant trafficking.”
In July the following year, A CITES Technical Committee visited Laos
to investigate the trade in live elephants, among others. Its findings
were presented at the 69th Meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in Geneva in November last year.
The report found that the trade in live elephants was indeed illegal, stating further
that “it is understood that the international movement of some elephants… occurred
in contravention of the national legislation of Laos and CITES provisions.”
But, while the Standing Committee
called on Laos to improve implementation combating the illegal trade in animals
and plants in other areas or face a trade suspension, no such recommendation
was made with regards to the trade in live elephants.
China must be held accountable
Laos and Zimbabwe seem to be getting all of the attention, Ammann believes that
China also needs to be held accountable, if not more so.
has been on the front lines of importing iconic live species from rhinos to
killer whales, elephants and recently 150 chimps – all totally illegal. Article
VIII of the convention dictates that parties involved in the illegal import be
prosecuted, the animals in question confiscated and, if possible, repatriated.
But this does not seem to apply to China,” he says.
SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: African Elephant Coalition renews call for global ivory trade ban
Korwin, Legal and Policy Advisor for the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, says the equity of the CITES decision-making
process needs to be called into question. “There was a serious risk during the
Standing Committee meeting,” he says, “that poorly-funded developing countries were
unable to fully engage and that important decisions were made by a select few.."
live elephant trade to China is a particular example of the lack of equity at
CITES. Elephants are a popular attraction at Chinese circuses and zoos and in
some places they are still expected to perform. Conditions are usually poor, with
the elephants often chained and confined in small concrete enclosures. CITES,
though, allows China
to determine whether the facility receiving imported elephants is suitably equipped to house and
care for them. There is no requirement for outside, independent assessment.
“The double standard at CITES, therefore,
benefits the more powerful and well-resourced countries,” says Korwin, “this
includes China and not the weaker countries, such as Laos.”
(Source: Conservation Action Trust)
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