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Allowing Ivory Sales Could Save the Elephants

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By John Frederick Walker
Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ivory poaching is back, big time, and the Internet is awash with photos of bloodied tusks and elephant carcasses.

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In 2007, Kenyan wildlife officials counted 47 elephants killed by poachers. In 2008, the number jumped to 98. Estimates of the number of elephants now being poached across the African continent range as high as 37,000 a year. All this despite a ban on international trade in ivory that was enacted 20 years ago today.

Why hasn't the ivory ban been effective? Mostly because it doesn't fit the reality of the situation.

In 1989, anti-ivory campaigners were riding a wave of worldwide revulsion at poaching that had halved the African elephant population over the previous decade. They took their cause to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the U.N.-administered convention that governs trade in endangered species. At the 1989 Conference of Parties in Lausanne, Switzerland, member countries ended more than a week of heated debate on Oct. 17. On a vote of 76 for, 11 against, and four abstentions, the African elephant was put on the list of species considered threatened with extinction. Inclusion prohibits all cross-border trade.

But there was a catch: Countries with well-managed populations could apply to CITES to have the status of their elephants declared to be less threatened. If they proved their case, they might be allowed to resume trade in ivory. Still, global trade in tusks had been banned, putting an end to the commerce that had been the curse of elephants for millennia.

In the aftermath, elephant poaching in Africa declined. But then it grimly started climbing back, and today it is at disturbing levels, as recent seizures of huge amounts of poached ivory make clear.

Some conservationists say the problem with the ban has been lack of enforcement. Many African countries with elephant populations have unregulated domestic markets at which items made from poached ivory can be purchased and then smuggled out of country. There's little dispute that better policing is desperately needed.

Other advocates point to CITES-permitted legal ivory sales as the ban's major flaw. These sales have been authorized twice -- most recently in late 2008, when Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa were allowed to auction 100 tons of ivory collected from elephants that had died of natural causes. Those tusks went to Japan and China, which agreed not to re-export any ivory, and the $15 million raised went toward elephant conservation.

Ivory trade opponents -- including Kenya -- have long argued that legitimizing any trade in ivory, no matter how tightly controlled, sends the wrong message to poaching rings and feeds the demand for ivory. But TRAFFIC, the joint World Wildlife Fund/International Union for Conservation of Nature wildlife trade monitoring network, says there's no hard evidence that these sales lead to more poaching or increased illegal trade in ivory.

Enforcement issues and potential ivory sales are sure to dominate the CITES conference in Doha, Qatar, in March, at which Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique are expected to submit proposals to sell their ivory stockpiles -- and set off alarmist media coverage.

But what's happening to elephants and their ivory is far more complex than the picture painted by most news organizations, which focus almost exclusively on elephant killings, giving the impression that these great creatures are being killed all over the continent.

The truth is that ivory poaching is most widespread in African states saddled with civil wars and racked by humanitarian crises, riddled by corruption and lacking effective conservation -- of which Congo is an all-too-ghastly example. By contrast, elephant numbers are increasing in the stable countries of southern Africa, where anti-poaching efforts have had some effect. Botswana has 130,000 elephants, nearly a quarter of the entire continental population. In South Africa's Kruger National Park, officials have concluded they will have to turn to culling to keep their growing herds from altering the landscape of the New Jersey-sized refuge.

Add in another inescapable fact: Tens of tons of gleaming tusks are recovered annually from elephants that die of natural causes in Africa's parks and reserves. Not surprisingly, countries that are doing a good job of managing their elephant populations argue that they should be able to benefit from the sale of guilt-free tusks to raise badly needed funds for the conservation of their giants.

That's what the procedure for seeking an exemption to the ban and gaining permission to sell ivory stocks was supposed to address. The problem is that the possibility of these sales is revisited at every CITES conference, which means that legal buyers (currently, ivory traders and merchants in China and Japan) can never be certain of future supply. That keeps the black market alive, preventing legal ivory from undercutting illicit supplies and crippling organized poaching. It's estimated that 100 tons of ivory could be supplied each year from the natural mortality of Africa's elephants, an amount likely to meet Asian demand for this long-revered carving material. A tightly controlled but steady stream of legal ivory from countries with protected herds, coupled with strict policing of domestic African ivory markets, may sound like an unholy coupling of conservation policies -- but it just might work.

Through almost all of human history elephants have been regarded as mere bearers of treasure; now we find them far more important than the ivory they carry. That's why the ivory ban came into being 20 years ago, and why the international community will never return to a completely unregulated ivory trade. But if the ban's limitations aren't addressed, its provisions strengthened -- and new ideas incorporated -- we'll end up facing another 20 years of poaching, ivory trafficking and elephant killings.

John Frederick Walker is the author of "Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants."


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