We're told we are in the 'anthropocene' era, the era of human domination. One of the features of this era is the so-called 'sixth extinction'.
In plain language, many of the world's species are disappearing as a result of human activities. The current rate of species extinction may be 1,000 times higher than what might be expected without human influence.
Our demand for wildlife products is a significant factor in the decline of many species. Yet in spite of overwhelming evidence of its damaging impacts, some countries continue to promote trade in products from endangered species as some kind of solution to the crisis.
They are wrong to do so.
African elephants feature among the species in serious decline, and have been held up by many as a 'poster species' to highlight our increasingly destructive impact on the planet. Our largest surviving terrestrial mammals are highly intelligent and intensely social, immensely strong yet capable of great sensitivity. They have a reputation for having long memories, and they mourn their deceased relatives and sometimes even people who have been kind to them. They are the gardeners of the forests and savannahs in which they live, creating and renewing the landscape to the benefit of multitudes of other species.
Yet Africa's elephants are disappearing fast.
The statistics are devastating. Less than half a million African elephants remain compared with perhaps five million just a century ago. The loss of habitat and migratory routes through encroachment of expanding human populations into wildlife areas, has had a big impact, as has the human-elephant conflict that inevitably results. But the major driver of recent decline has been the industrial-scale massacre of elephants to supply ivory into trade.
In excess of 150,000 African elephants have been slaughtered by poachers since 2012. At least 20,000 continue brutally killed each year. Every one of these was a family member. Every one played its part in elephant society and the wider ecology. The loss of every one is irreplaceable.
International trade in 'new' ivory was effectively banned in 1989 when African elephants were listed on Appendix I of the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). However, trade in ivory within many countries remains legal, and international trade in raw and worked ivory items, both legal and illegal, has continued to flourish, stimulating demand and incentivising the poachers and traffickers.
In response, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a Resolution in 2016 urging countries to close their domestic ivory markets, and CITES followed suit. The USA, formerly a major market for ivory, implemented a 'near total ban' last year. China announced it would do the same and has already begun closing ivory carving factories and retail outlets, a process that should be completed by the end of 2017. Many African countries already operate domestic bans. These combined actions, alongside demand reduction efforts in key markets, appear to be having some impact, with prices for raw ivory reported to be falling fast.
Yet some still seem to think that we can trade our way out of this crisis, and continue to call for the international ban on ivory to be overturned.
In August 2017, Zimbabwe's Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri was quoted as saying that Zimbabwe would be putting up a "strong fight" to lift the international ivory trade ban, with the claimed support of several other African countries including South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.
Zimbabwe and other southern African countries have long been advocates of treating wild animals and products obtained from them as commercial commodities, only seeing their value in monetary terms. Reports suggest that Zimbabwe is sitting on perhaps 100 tonnes of stockpiled ivory, which it is desperate to monetise with seemingly little consideration for the potential consequences. The timing of this latest effort is far from coincidental, with a 9-year 'moratorium' on efforts to get CITES to allow international ivory trade coming to an end, and an important CITES meeting coming up in November 2017.
However, any effort to reverse the international trade ban would be disastrous. It would send a mixed message to governments, consumers and traders at a time when the international community is coming together to shut the trade down. It would undermine years of field conservation initiatives by countless individuals working across elephants' range, and education efforts aimed at informing the public of the horrific nature of the ivory trade and reducing consumer demand for ivory. It would provide a mechanism by which poachers and traffickers could launder their illegally-obtained blood-ivory into markets.
The last 'one-off' ivory sale agreed by CITES took place in 2008, and included ivory from Zimbabwe. Counter to claims made at the time, elephants did not benefit from these auctions; rather the sales resulted in parallel legal and illegal ivory markets which have proved impossible to control.
Unprecedented levels of elephant poaching followed. The consequences for elephants across much of Africa have been disastrous.
And Zimbabwe is hardly in a position to claim that it could effectively control and manage a legal trade mechanism, given its poor rating on crime and corruption indices. The chances of any proceeds from future ivory sales resulting in a significant net benefit to Zimbabwe's conservation programmes or local communities in Zimbabwe are dismally slim.
The global community is finally waking up to the value of elephants, the devastating impact of ivory trade, and the need to shut down demand for and trade in ivory from all sources in all markets, if the scourge of poaching is to be addressed. We may already be seeing the benefits of these actions.
Now is a time for the international community to hold firm, not to bow to those whose interest is merely financial.