Ten African countries have accused the EU of jeopardising the survival of the common hippopotamus by not supporting a proposed commercial trade ban, in documents seen by the Guardian.
Illegal hunting for meat and ivory is thought to have wiped out hippo populations in five African states: Algeria, Egypt, Eritrea, Liberia and Mauritania. But Brussels is planning to oppose a bid to ban the global trade in hippo products at a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) conference in Panama from 14 November.
That in turn has sparked “grave concerns about the future of this species” from 10 states – Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Gabon, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo – which have co-authored a letter to the European Commission.
“By openly opposing our proposal, the EU is jeopardising the chances of the west and central Africa region, which are range states of more than half of the hippo populations, to adequately ensure the survival of the species,” the letter, dated 20 September, says. “Hippos have been silently dying for 30 years. We must act quickly before they become extinct.”
Hippo teeth are prized by ivory hunters, and were among the mammal parts most commonly seized in 2020, according to a European Commission report. Between 2009 and 2018, products from nearly 14,000 hippos were globally traded or shipped as hunting trophies, according to the Cites trade database.
Despite an estimated global population of 115,00-130,000, the semi-aquatic mammals have suffered an overall population decline of between 30% and 50% over the last decade.
In 2016, they were classed as vulnerable to extinction in the wild on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s red list, which said that population trends in about two-thirds of range states were declining or unknown.
Hippos, the third-largest land mammals after elephants and rhinos, are threatened by illegal hunting, habitat loss and degradation, climate crisis and by conflict with expanding human settlements.
Jan Pluháček and Rebecca Lewison, co-chairs of the IUCN’s hippo specialist group, said that hippo populations were “not experiencing these threats equally. More substantial declines were observed in west and central African countries versus stable and in some places increasing populations … in eastern and southern African strongholds. A new [assessment] is planned for 2024 or 2025.”
An IUCN analysis for the Panama conference said that because global hippo numbers have not fallen by more than 50% over the last decade, the species “would not therefore appear to meet the biological criteria for inclusion in Appendix 1”, which lists species that cannot be internationally traded due to extinction risks.
The commission is discussing its final stance on the issue with EU countries. Officials say that neither illegal trade volumes nor population declines among hippos are sufficient to justify a trade ban.
“The commission takes its commitments to preserving biodiversity very seriously,” a spokesperson said. “The EU’s ambition is to shape global efforts to halt and reverse the continued decline of biodiversity.”
“Many of the commission’s positions reflect a very narrow interpretation of the Cites listing criteria,” they say in a letter signed by groups including Humane Society International, Born Free and Pro Wildlife. “The commission has ignored the precautionary principle by pointing to limitations on available scientific data as justification to not support listing proposals, even when those species would benefit from monitoring to ensure international trade is legal and non-detrimental.”
Slow-reproducing species like hippos only have offspring every other year, while crocodiles can lay 60 eggs in a clutch, resulting in an “absurd” situation where the current Appendix I rules may one day support animals that could quickly recover from population declines but not those that could be wiped out, the letter said.
In September, the European parliament called on the commission to take a more ambitious position in Panama and support Appendix 1 status for hippos and other species.