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The sale of ivory, or the sale of elephants?

February 2, 2010

The ivory trade is one of those issues that always strikes me as both bizarre and desperately sad.

africanelephant_photographer-OliverWrightNot disputing the cultural basis for the historical use of elephants – for ivory, as weapons of war and for ceremonial purposes – that in 2010 this issue still rages speaks volumes for how far out of touch we are with sane decision making.

In the last century elephant populations have plummeted from loss of habitat, increased agriculture and a bloody international market in ivory.  Rampant poaching to feed this market from 1979 to 1989 halved Africa’s elephant population from 1.3 million to 600,000.  Today numbers may be as low as 450,000.

The two species African elephant are the largest land mammals in the world. When not in conflict with humans, their gentle, social and intelligent lives are spent ranging across the forest, savannah and semi-desert habitat of sub-Saharan Africa. Savanah and semi-desert herds can march for 80km in a day. The wonders of their culture and societies are just now becoming clear to us. Surely, we can now consider them as wonderful wildlife and not merely the products at the core of shady deals and illicit trade.

A few days ago the East African was reporting, once again, that the surge in ivory trafficking has been fueled by organized crime in Asia, dramatically escalating the price of ivory. This is not about African culture. It is only about profit and governance deficit than now spans decades.

In 1989 CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) imposed a ban on ivory trade and the price of ivory crashed and markets in Europe and USA closed down.  But in 1997, CITES approved the sale of up to 60 tonnes of stockpiled ivory from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to Japan.  In 1998-1999 poaching escalated and 17,000kg of illegal ivory seized by customs.  Born Free has estimated this represents a small fraction of the total slaughter of elephants.

In 2000, CITES agreed ‘no more trade’, but in 2002 gave Botswana, Namibia and South Africa permission to sell a further 60 tonnes of ivory stockpiles to Japan.

Now in 2010, the international trade deal (the CITES Action Plan for the Control of Trade in African Elephant Ivory) widely criticized by conservation organisations has failed miserably, and may have even given rise to a greater illegal market.

IFAW makes the valid point that many African countries are ill-equipped to manage this issue, lacking the infrastructure, equipment, law enforcement and legal frameworks to both manage CITES requirement and control ivory trade.

Meanwhile, debate on the African sub-Continent continues, with Kenya and other countries wanting an ongoing ban on all stockpile sales, while Tanzania and Zambia – who boast some of the worst poaching records in Africa – backed by Namibia, want a relaxation of trade regulation, suggesting that the millions profits from sales will help to fund rangers to protect their elephants.

Tanzania and Zambia will bring a proposal to the CITES meeting in Quatar in March, to allow another ‘one-off’ ivory auction, which they believe will somehow curb poaching.

So, in short, they will increase supply and legitimize a market in order to reduce demand. Something in that argument just doesn’t ring right!

After all, is this about ivory or the lives of elephants?

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