There are chubby elephant footprints all over Jacqueline Mwaviswa's farm. But she doesn't think they're cute or even interesting. Love of the floppy-eared, six-ton elephant is something for tourists and wildlife conservationists, says this grandmother of 15.
She's upset because an overnight elephant rampage around her village last week left her entire food supply for the next two months -- her cashew nuts, her cassava and banana trees, her mangos and maize -- trampled or devoured by the world's largest living land mammal.
In Voi and the other poor rural villages that ring Tsavo National Park in southern Kenya, elephants -- with their nimble trunks and wide, padded feet -- have not only destroyed $30,000 worth of food, but have also killed four people since April, causing schools in the area to close and local leaders to urge villagers to arm themselves against marauding wildlife.
"The elephants have spoiled everything," Mwaviswa said as she walked through her shredded fields. "Why can't we get rid of some of them?"
Her question is the focus of an emotional and complex debate halfway around the world this week as 160 countries meet in Santiago, Chile, for the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES. The southern African nations of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa are pushing for revision of a 13-year-old global ban on the sale of ivory that would allow them to sell stockpiles of elephant tusks worth millions of dollars. And while the proposal involves mostly the tusks of elephants that died from natural causes, some rural Africans are wondering whether it's time to allow some of the continent's larger herds to be thinned out.
"Why can't we use the sale of ivory to pay for compensation for our lost crops or for those who died by elephant?" asked Mwaviswa. "We don't see any of this money."
The global appetite for ivory, prized for its buttery, pearl-like luster, long ago made the elephant a popular target for poachers who kill the animals and sell their tusks. Employing anything from simple wire snares to poisoned arrows to AK-47 rifles, they recently were killing 50,000 to 150,000 elephants a year, carving the tusks from their faces and leaving the carcasses to rot in the sun.
Since the start of the 20th century, when an ivory bracelet priced at a hefty $300 rivaled the status of a diamond ring, the number of elephants in Africa dwindled from an untold abundance to an estimated 1.3 million in 1980 to as few as 600,000 in 1989. But after conservationists, mostly from Europe and the United States, launched a campaign to save the elephants, the sale of ivory was banned. Estimates by wildlife groups indicate the African elephant population continued to slide, reaching 300,000 in 1998, but has since climbed back to 600,000.
The elephant resurgence has forced African governments to make difficult choices about whether to resume the ivory trade -- this time in a carefully controlled way that would keep revenues out of the pockets of poachers and funnel it to poor villagers.
In 1997, CITES agreed to allow the first exception to the ivory sales ban, permitting Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell Japan about 110,000 pounds from existing legal stocks of raw ivory. The deal, which was completed two years later, netted $5 million that was used for elephant conservation in those three countries. This year, the same three countries are being joined by South Africa and Zambia in requesting another one-time sale, to be followed by annual sales governed by strict quotas.
Many wildlife advocates argue that the elephants' comeback is far from complete and that preventing illegal poaching would be impossible. Kenya and its East African neighbors support continuing the ban, as do West African countries and the United States.
No one involved in elephant management programs likes to talk about culling and selling ivory, said Pieter Botha, deputy director of trade and regulation for South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. "We are nature conservationists by heart, and it's a traumatic experience," he said in a telephone interview. "But sometimes it has to be done for all sorts of reasons."
Elephants nearly disappeared from South Africa long ago. The discovery of gold and diamonds attracted Europeans -- including hunters -- in droves and by 1910, there were 120 elephants in the country, Botha said. Now there are 13,000 and their numbers are growing by 7 percent a year, he said. As South Africa and its neighbors struggle to provide public education and basic health care to their citizens, the South African government has 30 tons of ivory in storage, most of it taken from elephants that died from natural causes, Botha said. Selling that stockpile, he said, would bring in about $3.5 million.
"At some point, you do reach the maximum amount that the environment can handle," Botha said. "Here they are eating our trees and hurting the birds that nest there. There has to be a balance. Ivory is a natural product that is a good resource that could be managed to help other conservation projects."
But allowing even the most limited sale of ivory would revive a market for the material that the CITES ban has all but eliminated, said Esmond Martin, who investigates the illegal trade of ivory for conservation groups. If ivory again becomes a legally traded commodity, he said, elephants will again be killed in huge numbers. Even with the ban in place, the demand for elephant tusks in Asia is huge. In August, six tons of ivory from Zambia was confiscated in Singapore. A month later, Chinese authorities seized three tons of ivory shipped through Kenya.
"There are already illegal sales in Congo, in Sudan, in Somalia, all places where there is war and no work," said Martin, who has traveled the globe producing reports on ivory sales. "If they make this legal, everyone will start killing elephants."
Here in Kenya, the safari industry reaps millions of dollars from foreign tourists eager to see wildlife, but the elephant population stands at about 30,000 elephants -- less than a quarter of what it was 30 years ago. Officials here say they oppose legalizing the sale of ivory in any way.
"If ivory is legalized, we stand to lose all of our elephants," said Zipporah Musyoki, head of education for the Nairobi-based African Fund for Endangered Wildlife. "You go to someplace in northeastern Kenya and an elephant is killed every day. Imagine if ivory was legal. There would be constant killing in order to sell the ivory."
At Nairobi Orphan Park, where the Kenyan Wildlife Service brings young elephants whose mothers have been killed, officials said a rise in the number of boarders reflects anticipation among poachers that the CITES ban will be lifted. So far this year, 71 elephants have been poached in Kenya, compared with 57 in 2001.
The most recent arrival to the park is an 11-day-old elephant from Meru, Kenya, whose mother had been poached days after giving birth. Park owner Daphne Sheldrick said the elephant -- whom she named Wendi -- has a slim chance of survival since she was unable to nurse from her mother, whose milk provides immunity from common diseases and infections.
But in Voi, about 150 miles southeast of Nairobi, there is little sympathy for elephants, orphaned or not.
Many villagers depend on subsistence farming. A large influx of Somali immigrants has strained food and water supplies in an area where most people do not have piped water or electricity. The Voi District Hospital is overloaded with children sickened by polluted water. To most villagers in Voi, saving elephants seems almost ludicrous.
"What will my family eat?" asked Malanga Kisombe, a farmer who stood barefoot amid crops trampled by elephants, his nerves frazzled and his eyes glowing red from a night spent without sleep. "The world values elephants more than they care about people."
James ole Perrio, the community wildlife officer for Kenyan Wildlife Service, said his organization is trying to fix the problem by dispatching rangers to drive the elephants back into the Tsavo National Park and by installing more electric fences around nearby villages.
"We understand it is frustrating and there is hostility," said Perrio. "That's why the only thing we can do is encourage the humans and the wildlife to live together."
When humans and elephants come into conflict, Perrio said, the elephants aren't always the ones at fault. While Kenya's elephant population has doubled in the 13 years since the ivory ban was imposed, the human population has risen from 21 million to 34 million, and hungry people are constantly on the move, looking for land to farm. As a result, "many humans are now living where elephants used to be. So when farmers are planting maize and crops, the elephants are attacking," Perrio said.
Rather than advocate selling ivory to repay farmers for destroyed crops, the Wildlife Service has a different idea: persuading farmers to give up their crops and cash in on eco-tourism by selling crafts to tourists and helping care for the animals that attract them.
Walking through a trampled field with one of her grandchildren strapped to her back, Mwaviswa laughs at the idea of getting involved in the tourist industry. She says she's been a farmer all her life. Then she surveys her chewed-up crops and wonders aloud how it would be to sell carved wooden elephants.