(May 30, 2007)

Ivory trade debate heats up in Africa

By Muchena Zigomo
From Reuters

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Debate over a proposed 20-year ivory trade ban has split African countries between those who want to protect the beloved elephant and others who say elephant populations have grown at an unsustainable rate.

A proposal by Kenya and Mali to ban ivory trading for up to 20 years is expected to take centre stage at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference starting in The Hague on June 3.

The plan, opposed by four southern African countries, has the support of 11 other central and east African countries and animal welfare groups, which say a ban is needed to protect endangered elephants.

In 2006 alone, experts estimate as many as 23,000 African elephants were illegally killed.

"We believe that a moratorium will lead to suppressing demand (for elephant tusks)," Jason Bell, southern Africa director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), said in a recent news briefing in Johannesburg.

"It will allow sufficient time to tighten up enforcement and bring illegal ivory trade and domestic markets under control."

Up to 92 cases of large scale ivory seizures of more than 1 metric ton -- considered a major seizure -- are reported worldwide each month, according to the IFAW.

The Elephant Trade Information System, the world's largest database of elephant product seizure records, says more than 40 metric tons of ivory have been seized since August 2004.

But some southern African countries argue exploding elephant populations have led to environmental damage and conflicts with human populations that are encroaching on their territory, and have dismissed emotional appeals to abstain from killing them.

Zimbabwe's Parks and Wildlife Authority recently said its elephant population had soared to over 100,000 -- more than twice the 45,000 they say the country can support.

Environment and Tourism minister Francis Nhema told the national Herald newspaper this week a ban on ivory trading would "be disastrous."

"The country will lose $40 million in revenue. ... Moreover, at least 10 to 15 rural councils in this country greatly benefit from these elephants as they construct schools and roads with proceeds from the utilization of those resources," Nhema said.


Elephants are the pride of many across the African continent, where they are protected as totems among some cultures and as treasured tourist attractions in others.

Ivory sales have been banned internationally since 1989, but Bell said a 1997 CITES decision to allow once-off ivory sales by Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia increased black market demand for ivory and put elephants in grave danger.

The opening heightened demand in the Far East in particular, where illicit ivory rakes in up to $850 per kilogram. The ivory is mostly used in jewelry, figurines and tourist trinkets.

The Ivory Trade Review Group -- a panel of experts set down to advise CITES on ivory trade and elephant conservation -- estimated that more than 300,000 African elephants were killed on the continent between 1986 and 1989.

This left only 625,000 elephants on the continent.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' African Elephant Status Report 2002 states there are approximately between 400,000 and 650,000 African elephants in the wild today.

Both Kenya and Mali say their bid for a moratorium is based on evidence of a jump in poaching and illicit ivory trading.

"The elephant contributes 25 percent to our GDP. If that is not important, I don't know what is important to Kenyans," Kenya Wildlife Service Managing Director Julius Kipngetich told a Kenyan radio station on Sunday.

Experts say 70 percent of Africa's elephant population is found in seven southern African countries, where some officials say populations are growing at between 4 and 5 percent a year.

But Rudi van Aarde, a conservation and ecology expert at the University of Pretoria, said most elephant populations are either declining or stable, and may not warrant culling.

"If Botswana and Namibia are basing their argument for trade in ivory on the intention of managing their populations, then that is a false call.

"Our research has shown that their populations are stable, they are not increasing," Van Aarde said.

Apart from requesting unlimited commercial trade, Botswana and Namibia also hope the vote in the Netherlands will change the status of elephants so they are not considered potentially threatened by trade.

Botswana's proposal also seeks annual export quotas for trade in registered stocks of raw ivory and a one-off sale of whole tusks and pieces for commercial purposes.

US and Australian military exercises may hurt whales »
« Greenpeace warns China of melting glacier

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter