Leaders from four southern African countries held talks in Botswana on Tuesday to better manage the world's largest concentration of elephants, amid growing concerns over poaching, loss of habitat, and conflict with humans.
Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi, whose country has Africa's largest elephant population, told his fellow leaders that it was time the region comes up with a common strategy to manage the huge mammals.
"We cannot continue to be spectators while others debate and take decisions about our elephants," Masisi said in opening remarks in the northern town of Kasane.
The so-called elephant summit was attended by presidents from Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
However, what stood out at the meeting was a symbolic gesture by Botswana, exhibiting the African nation's commitment to the removal of the ban on selling of ivory products. While welcoming the leaders of the three nations, President Masisi gifted them with foot-stools made of elephant feet. According to a report in the BBC, the gift was symbolic of the African nations' resolve to wiggle out of the ban.
At the end of the one-day meeting, the leaders resolved to "effectively lobby the international community" to relax the global ban on ivory trade to a strictly-controlled form of trade.
In 1989 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned international trade in ivory by listing all African elephant populations in its appendix 1.
Southern African countries have submitted proposals to CITES to have their elephant populations transferred from appendix 1 to appendix 2 which would allow them to trade in registered raw ivory to CITES-approved partners.
"We reflected on the status of the African elephants in the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, and noted that while overall numbers have declined, it is evident from available data that countries such as Botswana and Zimbabwe have large populations," they said in a statement.
As the "numbers continue to grow, human-elephant conflict is escalating ....due to competition for limited resources and the effects of climate change," they said.
Landlocked Botswana has around 150,000 elephants roaming freely in its unfenced parks and wide open spaces, followed by Zimbabwe with some 100,000 according to a conference document.
The southern African region is also experiencing drought spells, which Masisi said were "placing even more pressure on our fragile ecosystems".
Around two-thirds of the world's elephant population is found on the continent.
Over the past decade, the number of elephants on the continent has fallen by around 111,000 to 415,000, largely due to poaching for ivory, according to figures from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Ivory from elephant tusks is illegally traded as part of a multi-billion dollar industry that extends from Africa to Asia and beyond.
The Botswana government is lobbying to end a strict ban on wildlife hunting which was imposed five years ago to protect wildlife in the country.
The controversial proposals, which must be debated by cabinet before becoming law, would overturn a hunting ban that was introduced by former president Ian Khama, who was an ardent conservationist.
(With inputs from AP)