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A Crack in the Ban on Ivory Trade

  • Thursday, January 1, 1998

The sharply differing reactions to the partial lifting of the ban on elephant ivory trade are emblematic of the ongoing struggle over how to best protect Africa's elephants and the interests of their human neighbors.

Last June, after two weeks of heated argument, delegates at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in Harare, Zimbabwe voted to "downlist" elephant populations in Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe from the endangered species category and to allow each country to hold a one-time sale of ivory to Japan.

"This is a triumph for sanity, objectivity and for recognizing developing countries' ability to make their own decisions on natural resource management," Dick Pitman, president of the Zambezi Society of Zimbabwe, told the New York Times. Not so, says Dr. Richard Leakey, well-known anthropologist and former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service. It is only a matter of time, he told the Wildlife News, before stockpiles are depleted and elephants are killed to meet a demand he says is sure to increase as a result of renewed trade.

"This action," he says, "betrays the whole conservation ethic of looking after unprotected populations, and that is very sad."

CITES is an international accord signed by 130 member countries that prohibits trade in endangered species listed on Appendix I and closely regulates trade in threatened species listed on Appendix II. In response to rampant elephant poaching in much of Africa in the 1980s, a total ban on international ivory trade was imposed in 1989.

While elephant numbers in most of Africa still have not recovered, populations in Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, which were not heavily poached, have grown substantially. The surge has contributed to habitat destruction and increasingly hostile relations between elephants and poor, rural communities that have sustained crop and livestock losses because of the animals.

The new CITES positions will allow the three countries collectively to sell a total of nearly 60 tons of ivory (Botswana may sell 25.3 tons, Namibia 13.8 tons and Zimbabwe 20 tons) following a 21-month waiting period dating from last June to set up monitoring and antipoaching measures across Africa. CITES representatives will monitor the sales to ensure that no illegal ivory is included--only registered, whole tusks from legitimately held, government stockpiles in each country may be sold.

Even with a limited trade and tight controls, says AWF President Michael Wright who attended the June CITES meeting, "some opponents to the change think that lifting the ban will send a message leading poachers to begin shooting elephants in anticipation of future ivory trade. Although speculative and undocumented, the fear of a return to the elephant killing fields of the 70s and 80s hangs like a Damocles' sword over the debate."

But Malan Lindeque, deputy director of Specialist Support Services and the CITES management authority for the Ministry of the Environment and Tourism in Namibia, says that "a total ban was never justified by the overall population picture and didn't reflect the management abilities of these countries."

In fact, he told the News, a total ban never addressed "real conservation issues, which relate to loss of habitat and changes in the human population." Many observers, Lindeque says, believe "making elephants as valuable as possible and giving local citizens an economic incentive to protect them outside of protected areas" will better address the more complex threats to elephants, like habitat loss, than a ban that only affects international trade.

The CITES measure mandates that revenues from the sales be channeled into local communities and conservation efforts within each of the three countries. Proponents of limited trade point out that a CITES panel of experts is reviewing safeguards to guarantee that the ivory sales comply with CITES requirements.

But Leakey is skeptical. "The money won't go to communities and wildlife programs," he says. "The government mechanisms that are supposed to ensure this all depend on national priorities, which are not conservation. It is all a charade."

Groups like TRAFFIC, a monitoring network of the World Conservation Union and the World Wide Fund for Nature, will undoubtedly play a larger role in registering stockpiles, Wright says. Some other obstacles to overcome in the coming months: weaknesses in national systems for registering ivory and for security; establishment of a system to track potential poaching increases in anticipation of the limited sales, particularly in the forests of central Africa; and development of a mechanism to halt trade immediately and relist elephants as endangered if problems arise.

"With the exception of the U.S., most governments never delivered their promised financial support for conservation to African countries at the time of the original ban," Wright says. "The question now is will they supply the cash and other resources needed to do all this. We are facing a new and riskier future, with implications perhaps greater than many thought."

How the CITES measure will play out is far from clear, and the debate is likely to grind on. Leakey and other critics of limited trade say conservationists need to avoid measures linking financial gain to the killing of endangered animals and focus instead on developing alternatives, such as elephant fertility-control programs.

But others, particularly in countries with large elephant populations, insist that human lives and livelihoods are at stake. All sides will be watching carefully in the months ahead as the elephant's status changes yet again.

Other Issues Addressed By CITES:

A proposal submitted by South Africa that would have allowed a vote on trade in southern white rhino horn at the CITES meeting in 1999 was narrowly defeated. Had it passed, it would have permitted South Africa to enter into discussions with potential market countries in anticipation of removing the ban on trade in rhino horn.

A proposal to downlist the northeast Atlantic population of minke whales did not receive the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

Proposals to uplist the Asian and European populations of brown bears to the endangered category were rejected.

The move to place the big-leaf mahogany tree (indigenous to central South America) on Appendix II was defeated. Instead, a working group will take a closer look at this contentious issue.

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