It will no longer be legal for wild baby elephants to be snatched from their families and exported to zoos around the world, after Defra ministers persuaded the EU to vote for a ban.
African elephants in Zimbabwe and Botswana were previously allowed to be exported to “appropriate and acceptable” destinations. Under this definition, Zimbabwe has been capturing live baby African elephants in the wild and exporting them to zoos in China and elsewhere.
EU delegates spoke strongly against the ban last week at the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in Geneva, arguing it would hinder the genetic diversity of elephants in zoos.
However, after heated backroom talks with Defra ministers, the EU performed a spectacular U-Turn and voted for the new legislation.
Now, the trade in wild elephants will be heavily regulated and only allowed in “exceptional” circumstances, and each case will be brought before the CITES committee.
Notably, the United States opposed both the original and amended proposal.
Zac Goldsmith, a minister at Defra, said: “Like may others I was appalled that the EU had intended to vote against a motion protecting baby elephants from being torn from the wild and shopped off to zoos and circuses.
“I’m absolutely delighted they changed their position and I am proud that our own defra team, in particular Cheryl Case, were responsible for persuading them. They worked around the clock for many days and they more than delivered for nature and the UK.”
Dr Mark Jones, the Head of Policy at the Born Free Foundation said: “After a long and sometimes acrimonious debate at the CITES meeting in Geneva, Governments voted by a majority of 87 in favour to 29 against, to ban the taking of live elephants from the wild from Zimbabwe and Botswana for export to captive facilities around the world except in exceptional circumstances.
“In the event, the European Union, which had originally opposed the restrictions, changed their vote following intensive negotiations to clarify a number of issues with the African countries that had originally proposed the ban.
“This progressive measure should help to bring an end to the trade in young elephants, particularly from Zimbabwe, that are ripped from their families and shipped to zoos around the world where they are condemned to live shortened and often lonely and barren lives.”
African officials said the new proposals would deny them much-needed resources to maintain national parks. CITES has also rejected a request from four southern African countries to sell government-owned stockpiles of ivory.
Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa said he was considering quitting the conservation body.
He said that CITES was dominated by people “like Europeans … who have exhausted their wildlife resources … but they want to set rules for us.”
Mr Mnangagwa, said the country had 84,000 elephants with a capacity for only 54,000, and desperately needed to sell its ivory stockpile, mostly from animals which died of natural causes.
“We are sitting on ivory stockpiles worth US$600 million (£490 million),” he said. “It’s a lot of money we can use for big projects.”
Mr Mnangagwa said Zimbabwe needed resources to train rangers and build more fences as “buffer zones” to protect farmers living within wildlife areas.
Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe tried to secure a one-off sale of government-owned stockpiles but were overwhelmingly defeated in the first round of voting last week. A final vote is due to take place on Wednesday.
Will Travers OBE, President of The Species Survival Network added: “I believe CITES has made a wise decision. Wild African elephants should be conserved and protected in Africa. Overseas zoos and circuses offer no discernible conservation benefits and can have significant, negative welfare impacts on the individual animals involved. The Species Survival Network, which has worked on international wildlife trade for nearly three decades, believes this agreement strikes the right balance and we applaud the African Elephant Coalition, the EU and, particularly, the UK delegation for working together to agree effective, compassionate and progressive measures which will reduce animal suffering and improve species conservation efforts.”
Audrey Delsink, wildlife director at Humane Society International said : “Speaking personally as an elephant field biologist I am jubilant that we have secured this victory for all the elephants who will now be spared the ordeal of being ripped away from their families.