Health & Science

Controversial sale from Namibia of wild elephants to an Emirati zoo

Namibia sold wild elephants at auction arguing conflict with the human population. The sale of 22 elephants transferred to a zoo in Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates is particularly denounced.

Elephant in Namibia
© Héloïse Delbos

Namibia sold 22 wild elephants to a zoo in the United Arab Emirates as part of a controversial program that proposed 170 wild African elephants on auction.

The whole process has been denounced by animal protection groups and the recent export to an Emirati zoo also spurred debate among members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

CITES is an inter-government agreement regulating the international trade of wild animals and plants to make sure it doesn’t threaten the survival of the species.

During a conference of CITES held in France from March 6 to 9, several members condemned Namibia for the export of these elephants, according to National Geographic.

The convention actually stipulates that the export of African elephants from Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa cannot be done to countries that never had wild elephants, unless there is a conservation benefit.

But the government of Namibia claims the process was entirely legal as CITES didn’t object to it.

CITES tweeted that there were divergent views between members during the summit and that the parties would “further address the issue of trade in live elephants” in Panama during the next conference in November.

Animal protection activists expressed their disappointment with the lack of actions from CITES. They also say Namibia interprets regulation loopholes in a way to justify the legality of the sale.

US$392,000 for the sale of 57 wild elephants

For the government of Namibia, this sale of wild elephants was conducted between private parties and Namibia was not responsible for the future of the elephants sold.

In a statement dated March 6, the ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism argued that all elephants were sold to Namibian bidders and that their transfers were not the government’s decision. “Once the successful bidders have ownership of the elephants, they are within their rights to utilize them in any way provided it is done within confinement of our domestic and international laws”.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a global alliance of associations, national federations, zoos and aquariums, dedicated to the care and conservation of animals, acknowledges that acquisitions from the wild are sometimes needed “based on a legitimate need for conservation breeding programs, education programs or basic biological studies”. And WAZA reviewed the intention to import wild African elephants from Namibia that involved one of its members, the Emirati zoo of Al Ain. The organization, in a statement dated March 4, said it was not able to determine whether the transaction fulfilled its code of ethics.

Selling to the zoo, and not to natural parks for instance, can be seen as a commercial benefit with no purpose of conservation.

There are approximately 400,000 wild African elephants left in the whole continent and Namibia is home to 24,000 of them according to a 2016 census.

Namibia sold 57 elephants on auction between December 2020 and January 2021. It had offered 170 for sale.

The government of Namibia justifies the sale of live wild elephants as meant to manage human wildlife conflict. Elephants damage farmers’ crops. Authorities recorded 923 crop damage caused by elephants between 2019 and 2021. It cost N$13.9 million ($924,000), the government says. Elephants are also blamed for the deaths of 3 people last year.

With the 57 elephants, the ministry of Environment expects to earn N$5.9 million ($392,000), of which N$4.4 million has already been received, according to a statement from February 15.

Al Ain Zoo bought the 22 elephants for an average price of N$150,000 (US$10,000) per elephant, totaling a revenue of N$3.3 million ($219,000) for Namibia. Another group of 15 elephants was bought for N$75,000 each. Animal transfer costs are supported by buyers.

Revenue from the auctions goes to a fund to be reinvested in human wildlife conflict management, national parks, species conservation, wildlife protection and law enforcement.

According to Namibia’s government, the 22 elephants arrived in the U.A.E. on March 5. One calf seemed weak.

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