Is a world without the illicit wildlife trade possible? One where no species faces imminent extinction at the hands of humans? Perhaps - with new technology, and consensus among origin and destination countries.
The World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Wildlife Crime Technology project, funded by Google, is one initiative that uses the power of technology to fight wildlife crime. In Namibia, where this project was implemented, official figures show a progressive decline in rhino and elephant poaching levels since 2015.
In a separate initiative, the WWF - in collaboration with the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare - has launched the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online.
Science and technology are key to enforcing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora's (CITES) international wildlife trade regulations. CITES decisions draw on data produced by prominent science-based tools. These include the trade database managed by the United Nations Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre; the CITES programme on Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants; and TRAFFIC's Elephant Trade Information System.
Tools like these help to determine the degree of protection required for a particular species, as stipulated by CITES. CITES Appendix I lists species threatened with extinction, and permits trade in these species only under exceptional circumstances. Those in Appendix II don't face extinction, but CITES strictly controls their trade and products to ensure sustainability. Species in Appendix III are included at the request of a state party that already regulates trade in the species, and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation.
The 180 state parties, including 59 from Africa, meet every few years to amend the appendices. In the run-up to the CITES Conference of Parties, taking place in Geneva until 28 August, African states have been bitterly divided over the permanent listing of all elephants in Appendix I.
Two groupings - the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), mainly East and West African countries, and Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries - differ on the way forward. 'The AEC has the numbers behind it, while SADC has the elephants,' Dr Susan Koech, former principal secretary at Kenya's State Department of Wildlife, told ENACT. That was after she chaired a meeting in April at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa that sought in vain to reach an African common position.
In 1990, CITES banned the international ivory trade, but in 1997 and 2008, countries in Southern Africa listed their elephant populations in Appendix II. This led to one-off sales of ivory stockpiles from elephants that died of natural causes, specifically to China and Japan. Experts say this fuelled illicit ivory trade and poaching. National Geographic argues that 'no matter how supposedly tight the controls, legal trade in ivory inevitably seems to serve as a smoke screen for illegal dealings.'
Kenya, backed by 30 other member states, exemplified the AEC's position when it burnt all its ivory and rhino horn stockpiles in 2016. This demonstrated its zero-tolerance stance on trading ivory and a commitment to its 40-year ban on trophy hunting.
In the 1960s, Kenya's elephant population was considered to be among the highest in Africa. Their numbers were all but depleted by hunters, and continue to drop due to poaching - facilitated by corruption in the Kenya Wildlife Service. Officials say this trend is under control, although the latest census shows that fewer than 8 000 elephants remain in the country.
In contrast, elephant populations have increased in SADC countries like Tanzania and Botswana to 60 000 and 130 000 respectively. These countries implement a regional sustainable use policy that allows trophy hunting and the sale of ivory for conservation. Critics however believe this encourages illicit ivory trade.
SADC countries are opposed to a blanket ban on the ivory trade, because the proceeds from stockpiles could fund conservation and development. 'That one-size-fits-all approach by CITES of banning everything disregards good efforts of our governments, and is neither sustainable nor advisable,' Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa said at a Botswana summit in May. Zimbabwe has said it may withdraw from CITES if it cannot sell its ivory stockpile - a threat that could be emulated by more SADC countries.
There are growing fears that more restrictive measures could lead to a mass CITES walkout by some elephant range states, which could reverse gains made to stop the illicit ivory trade. 'It could spell doom for the conservation of the African elephant,' Taye Teferi, TRAFFIC's Africa policy and partnership coordinator, told ENACT.
Although these debates are divisive, conservation and the fight against wildlife crime works in all countries' interests. The United States, United Kingdom, France, Taiwan and most recently China have banned their domestic ivory markets to varying degrees. Japan is pressed to do the same.
Neighbouring countries like Laos, Vietnam and Thailand also have active and resilient import-based domestic markets. Imports are often from elephant range countries. With a blanket ban, this would become illegal.
The existence of a legal domestic market in an elephant range country like South Africa can create loopholes and channels that can be exploited for illicit trade. Closing all legal markets - domestic or otherwise - could restrict supply globally, and ensure cooperation between range, transit and destination countries in enforcing these regulations.
Both sides of the ivory debate have a point - but at the same time they miss the point. A blanket ban is unlikely to solve the problem of high elephant populations in countries like Botswana. Nor are periodic one-off ivory sales likely to meet the global demand for ivory - or prevent illegal ivory from entering the system under the cover of legal trade. As the endless debate ignores the elephant in the room, extinction threatens elephants in the wild.
Duncan E Omondi Gumba, ENACT Regional coordinator - East and Horn of Africa, ISS Nairobi
This article was first published by ENACT. ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.