Ivory sale raises fears of new slaughter

Posted: 30 October 2008

Elephants are again under threat, with a disturbing resumption of the ivory trade that has been banned since 1989. There are fears that the recent export of ivory from Namibia could trigger a resurgence of the poaching that has drastically reduced African elephant numbers. This report is by Jonathan Clayton, Africa Correspondent of The Times (London).

Tusks for auction
Tusks for auction
Tusks for auction in October 2008. Photo © IFAW
Ivory went on sale legally yesterday [October 28] for the first time in almost a decade when the southern African state of Namibia auctioned seven tonnes of elephant tusks exclusively to Chinese and Japanese buyers.

The much criticised sale, which raised $1.18 million (£743,000), heralded two weeks of rolling auctions that will put 108 tonnes of ivory - the equivalent of more than 10,000 dead elephants - under the hammer in a one-off sale to the Far East, where the product is used mainly in traditional medicines and for official seals to stamp formal documents.

Wildlife groups and other African nations fear that the controversial sell-off could breathe life back into the ivory trade, banned in 1989, and trigger a resurgence of the poaching that devastated Africa's elephant populations in the 1970s and 1980s.

African elephant
African elephant
African elephant. Photo © IFAW
Julian Newman, campaigns director with the Environmental Investigation Agency, said that the move could once again open the floodgates to poaching, which reduced Africa's total elephant population from five million in the 1930s to about 600,000 today. "This [auction], coupled with a lack of sufficient checks in importing countries such as China and instability in some African range states, could easily drag us back to the dark and bloody days of the 1980s when we were seeing around 200 elephants killed by poachers each week." Conservationists argue that a lack of proper oversight will allow poachers to mix illegal and legal ivory and slip it past regulators, many of them corrupt.

Conservation projects

Michael Wamithi, director of the elephant programme at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: "Both China and Japan have been approved as trading partners for this ivory and are known to be among the world's largest illegal ivory markets. Considering the level of elephant poaching occurring today, allowing this exorbitant amount of ivory to flood the market is just plain irresponsible."

Four southern African countries - Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where elephant populations are healthy - have been authorised by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to hold the sales.

The proceeds will go into elephant conservation projects or those aimed at improving conditions for the often extremely impoverished communities around the edges of elephant ranges, which see little benefit from the money brought in by Western tourists.

The sale - the first since 1999 - was approved in principle in 2002. Last year's CITES meeting in The Hague agreed that enough precautions had been taken to enable the auction to go ahead with Japan as the sole buyer. This year, it was agreed that China had taken sufficient action against the illegal trade to be included.

Elephant ivory, from African elephants, confiscated from poachers. © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
Elephant ivory, from African elephants, confiscated from poachers. © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
Elephant ivory, from African elephants, confiscated from poachers© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
The convention argues that data showed that the 1999 sale did not boost poaching and brought in $5 million to help with managing southern Africa's growing population of about 312,000 elephants.

Traffic, a wildlife trade watchdog, says it has confidence in the auctions which, after Namibia, will move every three days through Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, which plans to sell a record 53 tonnes.

Strict monitoring

David Newton, Traffic's regional representative in South Africa, said: "As far as we are concerned it is a well-managed process. We are always urging caution and the ivory trade needs to be very strictly monitored; we are confident the monitoring mechanisms are in place."

William Wijnstekers, the CITES general secretary, will visit all four countries to supervise the sales and meet Chinese and Japanese representatives about monitoring the ivory after the sale.

Editor's note:

This sale of ivory was welcomed by Environmental economist Julian Morris, Executive Director of International Policy Network. He said it was a step on the road towards sustainable development for communities that share their land with elephants.

In the past, Professor Morris has heavily criticized the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species' (CITES). Commenting on the sale and prospects for the future, Prof. Morris said:

"Countries with large elephant populations must choose between state management of those populations, funded by international donors, and private management, funded by eco-tourism, hunting and the sale of ivory.

"Those that have chosen the former have generally experienced declines in their elephant population and have higher levels of conflict with disenfranchised local populations, who see the elephants as a pest, trampling their crops and injuring - even killing people.

"By contrast, countries in which local populations are vested with the rights to own and use the wildlife have experienced increases in elephant populations and have experienced fewer conflicts - because the locals see the elephants as a resource to be husbanded.

"The countries who continue to support the ban on trade in ivory do so because they see it as a way of bringing in donor money. The countries who support a lifting of the ban do so because they want to become self-sustaining; they do not want to be reliant on donor money and they do not want to be hindered by barriers to trade."

Source:

The Times article was published in that newspaper on 29 October 2008, See: www.timesonline.co.uk