It was a significant moment for wildlife conservation: Namibia on April 9 was permitted to auction off over 12 tons of elephants tusks, the first legal sale of ivory since a ban halted international trade nine years ago.
Four days later Zimbabwe put 20 tons of ivory on the auction block, and on April 17 Botswana sold nearly 18 tons. How much the sales brought in was not released.
The three countries, where elephant numbers are increasing rapidly, were granted approval by a standing committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to hold one-time sales from government stockpiles. No tusks from poached elephants were sold.
To qualify, the countries were required to designate all proceeds for conservation and to demonstrate they had monitoring and enforcement systems in place to prevent illegal sales.
"The conservation record of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe has been impressive," AWF President R. Michael Wright said. "Together they have an estimated 200,000 elephants and say they need additional funds to protect their growing populations.
He noted, however, that the elephant populations in eastern Africa are just beginning to recover from the devastating poaching of the 1980s. "We are concerned that the system to monitor the impact on elephants in east and central Africa is seriously flawed," Wright said. "We will be watching closely to be certain there's no renewal of the poaching that led to the worldwide ban only a decade ago."
CITES members removed the elephants of the southern African countries from the endangered list in 1997 and agreed to the ivory sales only if adequate controls against smuggling and poaching were established. AWF and other conservationists argue that sufficient controls are not in place.
"While the trade ban has been key in the poaching decrease," Wright said, "we have learned there is no substitute for good old-fashioned law enforcement, building community support for conservation through benefit sharing, and controlling corruption."
He added that "there is a risk even in these limited sales, but the best way to address it is through increased protection of vulnerable populations."
By prior agreement, all the ivory auctioned off in April went only to buyers from Japan, the world's largest consumer of ivory. Japan has agreed not to re-export ivory and indicated, along with the European Union and the United States, that it will contribute to a new system to detect poaching.
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