The regulator of global wildlife trade has agreed to impose a near-total ban on sending African elephants captured from the wild to zoos, in a decision conservationists hailed as “momentous”.
States party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) approved the measure following a heated debate in Geneva.
Zimbabwe opposed the move and tried in vain to block the vote. Harare along with Botswana provides most of wild African elephants to zoos outside of the continent. The United States also voted against.
However, with 87 in favour, 29 against and 25 abstaining, the measure secured the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
The decision only impacts African elephants. Asian elephants already enjoy more protection against international trade.
The initial CITES vote was to limit the trade in live wild African elephants to conservation in their natural habitats, basically ending the practice of capturing elephants and sending them to zoos and entertainment venues around the world.
The European Union hinted it might join the US and others in flatly opposing the text.
This prompted an outcry, with a number of public figures including Jane Goodall, Pamela Anderson and Brigitte Bardot sending a letter to EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker asking that the EU back the ban.
In the end, the EU drafted an amended text, adding a loophole, saying the elephants should remain in their “natural and historical range in Africa, except in exceptional circumstances”.
This would allow for an elephant already in France to be shipped to nearby Germany without having to be sent back to Africa first, conservationists explained.
Such decisions should still only be made in consultation with the CITES Animals Committee, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) elephant specialist group.
Audrey Delsink, the wildlife director at Humane Society International (HSI)’s Africa division, welcomed the outcome of Tuesday’s vote.
“This is a momentous CITES decision for africa’s elephants,” she said, while also expressing disappointment that CITES had failed to impose an outright ban.