Implications For CITES If African Elephants Split

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    Implications For CITES If African Elephants Split

    Source: TRAFFIC Bulletin, Vol. 23/2, 2011

    Tom Milliken Elephant and Rhinoceros Program Leader, TRAFFIC

    A number of research papers published in recent years suggest the existence of two or even three genetically distinct species of African Elephant: the savanna elephant, the forest elephant (of Central Africa) and, possibly, the West African elephant (see Biology News - DNA Evidence Suggests 3 Types Of Elephants Roam Africa and PLoS Biology: Genomic DNA Sequences from Mastodon and Woolly Mammoth Reveal Deep Speciation of Forest and Savanna Elephants). Such findings of genetic differentiation will need to be confirmed before any formal taxonomic revision of the African Elephant Loxodonta africana (or its recognized subspecies in forest areas L.a. cyclotis) can be proposed. It is, however, worth considering the implications of any change in taxonomy from a CITES perspective. If forest elephants in West and Central Africa and/or populations of West African elephants were ever recognized as separate species, they would remain listed in Appendix I under CITES, just as they are at the present time. Thus, in terms of treatment under the Convention, the effect would be moot, but there could be other follow-on consequences.

    First, if the status of the savanna elephant (whose Loxodonta africana populations in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are listed in Appendix II) were considered independently of either the poorly known and smaller populations of forest elephants in Central Africa and/or without the small, fragmented and highly endangered populations of West African elephants, a lesser category of threat might actually be applied to the species in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (where it is currently listed as Vulnerable). Although this may not necessarily result in a change in the CITES listing for Loxodonta africana, it might open a door for consideration of the savanna elephant species being listed in CITES Appendix II.

    Secondly, distinguishing ivory from these distinct species may have implications for the successful implementation of these CITES listings. Experts can usually differentiate whole tusks of forest elephants from those of savanna elephants as they are generally much straighter, narrower and the material much harder to carve. However, worked ivory products and small ivory items would be almost impossible to distinguish from other elephant ivory types.

    As a consequence, a period of uncertainty would likely prevail until a method were developed to verify the differences and specific training materials were produced. Such an outcome might finally result in CITES moving more forcefully to close the unregulated domestic ivory markets in Central and West Africa that are so problematic as drivers of illegal ivory trade.

    The IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) has encouraged all research groups to work together to resolve this important genetic issue by pooling their data, obtaining DNA samples from parts of the elephant range that have not been sampled (especially south of the Congo river), and has issued a statement to encourage this process

    (see also attached pdf document named pos_genet_en.pdf).

    Editor’s Note: This article of Tom Milliken underlines the importance of the Joint Research Project for the Conservation of the African Elephant – a cooperative effort between the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), the International Centre of Ivory Studies (INCENTIVS) of the University of Mainz, the University of Regensburg (Germany), the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (FANC) and the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC). Scientists are developing a reference database for the geographical origin of African elephant ivory and a precise method on how to designate the age of ivory tusks. In a Press Release the CIC called “Hunters for Support: African Elephant Ivory Samples Needed” see also Pages 4 and 5, African Indaba, Vol. 9, No 1.

    As there are still not enough ivory samples throughout the African elephant’s range available for the project, the FANC and the CIC would like hereby to ask all elephant hunters for assis-tance. Contact Dr. Rolf Baldus, who leads this project within the CIC at or Mrs. K. Hornig at for further details and instructions.

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