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Zimbabwe plans to sell its ivory stockpile to China, except… it can’t


Confiscated ivory is moved to secure containers from a stockroom at the Kenya Wildlife Services in Nairobi. Kenya will burn 105t of confiscated ivory, almost all of the country's total stockpile, at the end of April. File Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/CAROL DE SOUZA

Confiscated ivory is moved to secure containers from a stockroom at the Kenya Wildlife Services in Nairobi. Kenya will burn 105t of confiscated ivory, almost all of the country’s total stockpile, at the end of April. File Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/CAROL DE SOUZA

Zimbabwe’s environment minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri wants to sell her country’s supposed $10bn ivory stockpile to China using a possible international legal loophole.

However, experts say 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 grossly overestimated.

Media reports from within Zimbabwe claim it sits on 96,000 tons of ivory valued at $10bn.

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

Muchinguri-Kashiri informed the Zimbabwean parliament recently that as a Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) member, Zimbabwe can legally take out a reservation against the current global ban on ivory as long as it’s within 90 days of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17), which ended in Johannesburg on October 5.

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.

But the reservation Muchinguri-Kashiri proposed is simply unobtainable, according to Stella Reynolds, a UK barrister and expert in international law.

She said the southern African nation would only be allowed a reservation if two-thirds of the member countries voted for a change in appendices listings at the meeting in Johannesburg. That did not happen.

Elephants in Zimbabwe remain listed under Appendix II, which previously allowed Zimbabwe, together with Namibia and Botswana, to sell off their ivory stockpiles to Japan in 1999 and again, with SA added to the trio, to China and Japan in 2008. But since then annotations added to the listing have all but prevented any stockpile sales.

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

Based on these estimates, the nation has a stockpile value of between $5m and $10m, 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. Nevertheless, this is a far cry from the purported $10bn.

It was reported that Muchinguri-Kashiri hoped to use the funds 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 programmes 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 of her nation’s stockpile are not the only areas where Muchinguri-Kashiri has erred. She railed against other African countries that wanted 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.

However, Botswana is home to the largest single elephant population on the continent, about a third of all Africa’s elephants, and 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 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 is less than $500 and no more than 10kg, they are 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 (Ifaw) in 2006, revealed that some sellers of ivory have little regard for the Cites permit requirements. Consequently, 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 buy ivory, while China and the US have begun a process of closing down their own domestic markets, which will practically close the door to any ivory stockpile sales from Zimbabwe.

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