This post (one of three) is an overview of the legal framework with which elephants currently exist. There are three types of laws, for our purposes, that affect elephant conservation:
(1) international law, (2) US federal law, and (3) state and local laws in the US.
Broadly, each type of law affects different aspects of elephant conservation and welfare. International law will be more relevant to elephant poaching and the ivory trade; and US federal, state, and local law is relevant to domestic trade in ivory and elephants in captivity (i.e. zoos and circuses).
This post will discuss the first type of law:
International Laws that Affect Elephant Conservation.
International law is tricky because countries essentially have to agree to follow it – there is no global body of law that dictates how countries should act. For example, countries choose to join or not join the United Nations, and countries choose to submit or not submit to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. However, once a country signs onto a treaty or international agreement, other parties to the treaty or the body holding the treaty can hold that country accountable to following the terms of the treaty.
So anyway, here are some international agreements (not a complete list) that affect elephant conservation, an explanation of each, and of course, why each one annoys me.
- Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
- Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals
- International Union of Conservation of Nature
What we first need to know about international law is CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES is a treaty among 183 countries, or “Parties.” CITES aims to ensure that trading in a certain animal or plant species does not threaten or endanger the species’ survival in the wild. CITES is not automatically law in the countries that have signed; those countries have to legislate these principles, using CITES as a set of guidelines. CITES meets once every three years to add, move around, or take away species from its list.
So, what does CITES mean for elephants?
CITES is very significant regarding two of the three main threats to elephants: poaching for ivory and the use of elephants in entertainment (circuses, zoos, tourism).
How CITES Works in 1 million words or less (no promises)
CITES is made up of three “appendices,” or lists. Any animal that is threatened by international trade is listed on one of the appendices based on the extent to which the species is threatened. The higher the danger of extinction, the more protections the animal is given from CITES. Appendix I is for animals that are in the most trouble, and trading in an Appendix I species is prohibited with a few “exceptional” exceptions. Appendix II is for species that are not already “threatened with extinction,” but might be if trade in those species is not regulated. Appendix III is for species about which a particular country is concerned. So the CITES Parties may be thinking the rainbow-spotted Norasaurus is doing fine, but then Iceland says “Will you guys help us with the rainbow-spotted Norasaurus, we are worried about it.” So the Norasaurus goes on Appendix III and trade is allowed only with permits and certificates of origin. #savetherainbowspottedNorasaurus
**See bottom for more info on this species.
Unfortunately, one of the big annoying issues with CITES is a problem that affects elephants disproportionately. It’s called split-listing. Split-listing means that some populations of a species can be listed on one appendix, while the other populations are listed on another. Now, split-listing would make sense if, say, rainbow-spotted Norasauruses lived in Iceland and Florida, only. Iceland all the sudden loses half of its Norasaurus population to international trade, and only has like 12 Norasauruses left, so the Icelandic population of the Norasaurus goes on Appendix I. But Florida’s Norasaurus population is ok in comparison so they want to list it on Appendix II or III. That’s fine. Florida can still export some of their Norasauruses.
Why split-listing does not work
While Asian elephants have enjoyed their sad Appendix I status since 1975, the African elephant was somewhat recently “downlisted” to Appendix II, but only for elephants that lived in 4 countries in southern Africa (Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe in 1997, and South Africa in 2000). This would make sense if each country had its own distinct elephant population, but elephants move freely across borders. There is no way to contain each country’s population within that country’s borders.
“Another difficulty with migratory species is establishing which member state the elephants actually belong to. If an elephant wakes up in Zimbabwe and goes to sleep in Botswana, whose elephant is she?”
To make matters even more annoying, the elephant populations listed on Appendix II essentially have a note next to their listing that says “y’all still shouldn’t trade ivory from these elephants, so we’re not going to allow it unless you have Appendix I exceptional exceptions.” The Namibia and Zimbabwe submitted proposals at this conference to be able to sell their ivory, but were denied. And, thankfully, Botswana decided to start supporting a total ivory ban. Botswana has a large percentage of the continent’s elephants – so this is good. But anyway, with the restriction on trading Appendix II ivory still standing, what is the point in downlisting? Who knows.
All the parties met at the Conference of the Parties in 2016 (“CoP17”) in South Africa, where proposals failed that would have re-listed the four countries’ elephant populations back on Appendix I. (Never fear, CoP17 was still a success for elephants, according to this article). Even if there were a billion elephants on the moon, it would STILL not make sense to downlist them, because poachers DO. NOT. CARE. They will drive their caravans and camels and AK 47s all the way to the moon and slaughter a moon elephant for $200. #savethemoonelephant
We need to get it together and list the entire species of African elephant on Appendix I until the continent’s population is back under control.
Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals
So, this convention operates similarly to how CITES does, but with only 2 appendices. Appendix I is endangered and Appendix II just needs “addressing.” Elephants are migratory species, but not every country is signed onto it. This isn’t doing much for elephants yet.
Maybe more on this later.
International Union for Conservation of Nature
As its name implies, IUCN is an “international union” of approximately 90 countries and hundreds of non-governmental entities aimed at everything from conserving nature to promoting sustainable economic development. Importantly, IUCN assesses the status of all species and lists threatened species on its rather famous “Red List.”
IUCN is relevant to CITES because CITES listings of species usually mirror IUCN’s listing of species. This kind of confirms, at least in my opinion, that both organizations’ data is somewhat reliable, or at least that they are using the same data, which implies that the data is reliable.
Either way, with regard to elephants, the data is pretty clear. However, African elephants are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN spectrum (7 levels: Least Concern (LC), Near Threatened (NT), Vulnerable (VU), Endangered (EN), Critically Endangered (CR), Extinct in the Wild (EW), and Extinct (EX)), even though the explanation on the website cites “high levels of uncertainty” regarding the reasons for and levels of population decline and growth. Asian elephants are listed as endangered.
Another international agreement that has not been approved yet is the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare. Because it focuses on welfare instead of rights, it has gotten a wide range of support, but not from too many countries with native elephant populations. If approved, it will be non-binding and will give countries “guidelines” for adopting strong animal-friendly policies. This document was created by World Animal Protection, and enjoys the support of Compassion in World Farming, RSPCA, IFAW, and HSUS. Hope to see this approved soon!
Two documents that are in less danger of being approved by an international body are the Declaration of Animal Rights and the Universal Charter of the Rights of Other Species. Not hating on the effort of the drafters, but these won’t get loads of support for the following reasons. The Declaration on Animal Rights advocates a vegan lifestyle, which just ain’t gonna work in the USA. The Universal Charter of the Rights of Other Species is worded strangely – it talks in circles almost. Also, it *suggests* a vegan, co-exist type lifestyle but makes a bunch of exceptions, one for captive breeding programs, which is a problem for elephants specifically that I’ll cover later on. Anyway, check ‘em out and decide for yourself if you want to sign.
Before I wrap up, there is this really awesome Elephant Charter written by Joyce Poole of ElephantVoices. Definitely read it and consider signing it! You can also peer pressure your friends and colleagues into signing, too, because you can search the document to see who has signed.
In Part II we’ll cover US State and Federal Law. It’s really interesting I promise!
The hypothetical rainbow-spotted Norasaurus is inspired by my pet dinosaur, Nora. She eats a lot.