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Restricting the trade in hippo parts is not necessarily the best option for African conservation

Restricting the trade in hippo parts is not necessarily the best option for African conservation
Hippos in the Crocodile River along the southern boundary of the Kruger National Park on 25 November 2020. (Photo: Warren Little / Getty Images)

Compared with elephants and lions, hippo conservation is largely under the radar, although they are just as fearsome and even more dangerous to people than most other large African mammals.

Hippos will no longer be under the radar during the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which is under way, as they have been proposed for “uplisting” from Appendix II to I. This means international trade in hippo parts (most often their teeth as a form of ivory) will be greatly restricted.

At face value, restricting the legal, international trade in a species may sound like a great idea for conservation, which is why giraffes were listed on Appendix II (from not being listed at all) during the last CITES COP. Unfortunately, neither the giraffe decision nor the proposal for hippos (if accepted) will make much difference for these species in the wild. If anything, they may have unintended negative consequences.

In the case of giraffes, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the only organisation in the world that focuses solely on giraffe conservation throughout Africa, was underwhelmed by the decision to list the species on Appendix II. It rightly pointed out that giraffe conservation is all about addressing the key threats of habitat loss associated with human population growth and civil unrest that leads to poaching. In some countries, bands of militia engaged in civil wars poach giraffes to feed their troops. Uplisting did nothing at all to address these issues, while the foundation’s real conservation work continued after the decision with almost no change.

As an Appendix II species, giraffe trade is still permitted – only now it is more closely monitored through the issuing of CITES export and import permits. The proposal for hippos is more drastic, however, as the proponents (10 West and Central African countries) want to move hippos from Appendix II to I. This will effectively ban commercial trade in hippo parts and make the CITES permit procedures for any kind of movement across borders more stringent.

Will uplisting to Appendix I make a difference in the real world of hippo conservation? Given the current conservation needs of hippos and the known threats they face, it is highly unlikely.

Hippos are considered “Vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, having declined during the 1900s and early 2000s in many parts of Africa. Since that historic decline, populations have recovered to some degree in eastern and southern Africa, which host the vast majority of hippos, but are still small and declining in much of West and Central Africa. As with many large mammal species, we are unlikely to restore hippo populations to their state 100 years ago, but current trends in countries with most of the hippos in Africa are encouraging.

Hippos face several interlinked threats to their long-term survival, although not all of these threats apply in every country where they occur. Habitat loss or degradation, whereby the rivers and lakes that hippos rely on come under increased human pressure, is an increasing threat related to human activities and climate change.

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Since hippos must be submerged in water during the day to escape the heat, they are entirely reliant on freshwater lakes and rivers. Large agricultural projects use this water for crop irrigation, leading to lower water levels and smaller pools for hippos. This situation is exacerbated by drought, which further reduces available water and forces hippos into more frequent territorial fights over their pools, or they leave their pools to find other water bodies.

When hippos are pressed for resources, especially in areas with substantial riverine human communities, they are more likely to come into contact with people. The replacement of hippo grazing grounds with crops is one of the primary drivers of human-hippo conflict. Fatal encounters between humans and hippos are another critical concern. Hippos may be killed in retaliation to specific incidents, while some governments have considered culling hippos to reduce their numbers.  

As with giraffes, hippo poaching is often related to civil unrest combined with a lack of adequate security for protected areas. Some poachers, especially more organised groups, will then sell the hippo teeth illegally. The international market for hippo teeth is not well understood, but it seems that it is used as a cheap alternative to elephant ivory. The illegal trade in hippo ivory increased soon after CITES banned the trade in elephant ivory.

As a trade convention, CITES can do nothing about any of the above threats – not even the threat of illegal trade. As we know from trading other goods around the world, banning the legal sale of goods or services that enough people demand (such as drugs or abortion) does not mean that the trade or activity stops altogether. It is far more likely to become illegal and unregulated. The only thing CITES can do is to restrict or regulate legal trade.

In response to some concerns about hippo ivory trade increasing due to elephant ivory restrictions, TRAFFIC, the global authority on wildlife trade, produced a rapid assessment report on hippo ivory trade. It found that trade in hippo ivory declined between 2009 and 2018, with an average off-take of 1,349 hippos per year representing about 1% of the estimated hippo population of 115,000 to 130,000. This included the sales of government stockpiles from Tanzania and possibly Malawi (reporting from the latter was unclear) that have been collected over many years from natural deaths or culling.

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Recent hippo population estimates provided in a TRAFFIC and IUCN analysis presented to CITES reveals that hippo numbers have increased in Tanzania (from 20,000 countrywide to between 26,000 and 36,000 in one location only), Botswana (from between 2,000 and 4,000 to 13,000), South Africa (from 7,000 to 11,000), Mozambique (from 3,000 to 8,000) and Cameroon (from between 1,500 and 2,000 to 3,800 and 4,400). Hippo populations are stable in Zambia (40,000 to 45,000) and Zimbabwe (about 7,000). All of these records are from population counts taken since the 2016 IUCN Red List assessment, which considered Africa-wide hippo numbers to be stable between 2008 and 2016.

Some of these changes are due to using survey methods that are better suited to counting hippos, while others reflect genuine increases. The only country that hosts significant (more than 7,000) hippo populations that seem to be declining is Uganda, although better survey methods are needed to confirm this. Given the most up-to-date information, the CITES Secretariat has stated that hippos do not meet the criteria for Appendix I, which requires evidence for a “marked decline” of the species.

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The main hippo-exporting countries are in southern and East Africa, where populations are generally large and stable or increasing. The West and Central African countries that are proposing to up-list the hippo do not allow legal trade, yet their hippo populations are small (10 countries jointly host about 4,500) and declining in some places. This does not mean the legal trade in hippo parts is necessarily linked with large hippo populations (factors like habitat availability and human density play major roles), but it certainly calls into question the idea that restricting trade will result in more hippos.

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If restricting or banning the legal trade in a species is not going to address the key threats it faces in the wild, why is there so much pressure each year for CITES Parties to make these decisions? While the Parties (countries that signed the convention) ultimately make the decisions at CITES, both pro- and anti-trade non-governmental organisations lobby hard for Parties to vote in certain ways. Sometimes, that lobbying is for them to vote in spite of the evidence that international trade is a relatively insignificant threat, which is what happened with the giraffe decision at the last COP.

The real battle

Since legal trade declined from 2009 to 2018, is restricting or banning trade a problem? Each case is different, but I have at least three problems with this approach. First, there is a worrying perception that uplisting species on CITES is somehow “doing conservation” – after all the hard lobbying is done and the species gets up-listed, everyone can celebrate and relax. Never mind that all of the other threats remain.

Dealing with those threats usually falls to the organisations that do not get involved in lobbying, since they understand that the real battle is won on the ground, not at CITES. Donor money is better spent on real conservation work than lobbying for something that makes little difference.

From TRAFFIC’s report, it seems that the illegal hippo ivory trade is more closely associated with the illegal elephant ivory trade than with legal hippo trade (although some discrepancies in CITES import and export data were flagged as requiring attention). Countries that are concerned that hippo teeth are crossing their borders illegally need to tighten border and protected area security – trying to prevent other countries from doing legal trade is unlikely to solve their security problems.

Second, for species that cause significant costs to people, allowing some revenue generation from trade can be part of a conservation strategy. This applies to hippos rather than giraffes, since only the former come into conflict with people. There is much to be desired in terms of how money from wildlife trade is spent and shared in some countries, but international trade bans will not improve spending or sharing policies – they simply eliminate all revenue.

The alternative to generating revenue to help offset the costs of conflict is to reduce animal populations that are perceived to cause the problem. If hippos are up-listed in CITES, I would not be surprised to see more culls in countries with large populations.

Third, the countries that have healthy populations of a particular species feel aggrieved when exports are prevented or restricted. This applies to hippos, giraffes and many other species that are thriving in southern Africa, but are threatened in other parts of the continent. If militia are killing hippos on the other side of Africa for their meat, and selling teeth as a by-product, why should countries that have hippo poaching under control be sanctioned? This valid question is brought up by southern African countries at every COP and is the main reason for their frustration with CITES.

Finally, there is strong evidence that global hippo populations have increased in the past decade, while legal trade volumes in hippo teeth have decreased. CITES Parties and lobbying groups that are calling for the uplisting of hippo populations are doing so based on outdated or false information.

After the giraffe uplisting in 2019, there was widespread celebration among prominent animal welfare organisations. Most of them claimed that giraffes were now being “protected” for the first time by CITES, but they fail to mention what exactly they are being protected from. All of the major threats faced by giraffes are still prevalent and remain the focus of genuine giraffe conservation efforts.

Why is uplisting a species, even if it is necessary for their conservation, a cause for celebration? Trade restrictions usually mean that enough CITES Parties are convinced (by evidence or by lobbying) that a species is declining in the wild to warrant such a decision. Having to restrict trade is thus a sign of failure – admitting that current conservation efforts are not working and hoping that trade restrictions might.

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But what happens if trade restrictions have no effect at all, or worse, if they have unintended consequences of making illegal trade more lucrative and therefore problematic for the species in question?

I see no cause for celebration in these decisions. If uplisting is necessary, it should be done with grim determination to improve the status of the species to the point where it can be downlisted again. Real increases in species numbers resulting from focused efforts to reduce the primary threats they face are a valid cause for celebration.

Hippos need rivers and lakes that still hold enough water for them to take refuge in, while the people who live near hippos need practical solutions – such as provision of clean water away from rivers and alternative livelihoods to replace poaching – that could save human and hippo lives.

What hippos and rural African communities do not need is ineffective and misinformed actions that fail to tackle any of the real challenges. DM

Gail Thomson is a Namibian conservation communications specialist. This commentary was supported by Resource Africa Southern Africa.

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