By Adam Cruise

HARARE, Zimbabwe, November 16, 2016 (ENS) – Zimbabwe’s Environment Minister wants to sell her country’s supposed US$10 billion ivory stockpile to China using an international legal loophole. Experts reply that not only is the minister misinformed that such a loophole exists but her assessment of the size and value of her nation’s stockpile is overestimated.

Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri has informed the Zimbabwean Parliament that as a Party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Zimbabwe can legally take out a reservation against the current global ban on ivory within 90 days of a Conference of the Parties. The 17th such conference, CoP17, ended in Johannesburg on October 5.

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Elephants in Zimbabwe, 2008 (Photo by Lizze Olson)

A reservation, the minister hopes, means Zimbabwe could commercially trade ivory if another CITES member nation, like China, also entered such reservation within the 90-day period.

However, Stella Reynolds, a barrister from the United Kingdom who is an expert in international law, says the reservation Muchinguri-Kashiri proposes is unobtainable. Reynolds explains that the southern African nation would only be allowed a reservation if two-thirds of CITES Parties had voted for a change in the elephant listings on the CITES Appendices at the meeting in Johannesburg. That did not happen.

Elephants in Zimbabwe remain listed under Appendix II, which allows limited regulated trade. This previously allowed Zimbabwe, together with Namibia and Botswana, to sell of their ivory stockpiles to Japan in 1999 and again, with South Africa, to China and Japan in 2008.

But since then annotations added to the listing have all but prevented any future ivory stockpile sales.

Media reports from within Zimbabwe have stated that the nation sits on a whopping 96,000 tons of ivory valued at US$10 billion dollars.

But this is a gross overestimation says Alejandro Nadal, professor at the Centre for Economic Studies, El Colegio de Mexico who specializes in wildlife trade. “The minister is not only confusing kilos with tons, but also millions with billions,” he said.

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Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri (Photo courtesy KuvakaZim)

According to CITES value estimates at the time of the 2008 sale, Zimbabwe sold around four tons at US$500,000.

Based on these estimates the nation has a stockpile valued at between US$5 and $10 million, depending on sale prices. China and Japan colluded in 2008 to keep the prices of stockpiled ivory down so they could sell it on to dealers for a profit. Still, this is a far cry from the purported US$10 billion.

Reportedly, Muchinguri-Kashiri hoped to use the funds from ivory sales to help relieve Zimbabwe’s foreign debt, however, Muchinguri-Kashiri has been misinformed about how the funds may be spent.

Under the agreement reached by CITES in July 2007, the countries that sold the ivory were “obliged to use the funds raised exclusively for elephant conservation and community development programs within or adjacent to the elephant range.” She therefore may not use any funds from potential future sales in sectors beyond conservation.

The reservation and size, value and distribution of funds from her nation’s ivory stockpile were not the only areas where Muchinguri-Kashiri’s errors have caused alarm.

She railed against other African countries that want fuller protection for elephants. “There are certain countries in Africa, such as Botswana, Kenya and Chad that no longer have wild animals and they are pushing for a ban on the sale of ivory,” she told parliament.

Botswana is home to the largest single elephant population on the continent, about a third of all Africa’s elephants. Kenya, according to the latest figures from the Great Elephant Census, has showed an increase in its elephant populations over the past decade, while Zimbabwe’s elephant populations have showed a decline over the same period.

Zimbabwe has an exemption under CITES allowing it to trade in worked ivory carvings for non-commercial purposes. Providing that a person purchases a valid CITES certificate, which retailers are obliged to provide, and the value of the items in question are less than US$500 and no more than 10 kilograms, that person is permitted to take ivory souvenirs out of the country.

An investigation into elephant management and ivory trade in Zimbabwe by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 2006, revealed that some sellers of ivory have little regard for the CITES permit requirements. Chinese dealers have transported large quantities out of Zimbabwe using this exemption.

Both Kenya and Chad have recently destroyed their ivory stockpiles, sending a clear message to consumers that it is no longer acceptable to trade in ivory, while China and the United States have begun the process of closing down their own domestic markets, which will practically close the door to any ivory stockpile sales from Zimbabwe.

{Co-published with Conservation Action Trust}.

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