May 27, 2007

South Africa heads for showdown over ivory sales

South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe are heading for a bitter showdown with other African nations over their support for a relaxation in the ivory trade despite elephant poaching across the continent reaching its highest levels since 1989. A proposal, to be tabled at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) conference to be held in the Netherlands from June 3 to 15, calls for the southern African nations to be allowed to sell off ivory stockpiles and to be granted an annual ivory sales quota. The proposal, submitted by Botswana and Namibia and supported by South Africa and Zimbabwe, is vehemently opposed by Kenya, Mali and at least 18 other African nations that have proposed a 20-year moratorium on all ivory trade. These countries, backed by a large number of animal welfare and animal rights NGOs, argue that any legalised trade in ivory is likely to spark an even greater demand for tusks and a corresponding increase in poaching.
Kenya and Mali say that at least 41 tons of illegal ivory was confiscated internationally between December 2004 and December 2006. This includes at least 10 to 14 tons of ivory believed to have originated in Zambia and Zimbabwe. This is the largest amount of ivory confiscated in any two-year period since Cites began imposing controls on the ivory trade in 1989. It is widely assumed by industry authorities that the confiscated ivory represents only a small percentage of the total illegal trade.
South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe argue that they have large elephant populations and that they should be allowed to sell of ivory, skins and other elephant products to raise funds for conservation. Dr Patrick Omondi, the head of the Kenya Wildlife Services elephant programme, however said that he could not understand why the southern African nations did not support a more holistic strategy towards managing elephants. "How can one part of Africa sit back and plan to make money out of selling ivory when the animals are faced with severe threats or even extinction in other parts of the continent?" Omondi asked. "We are vehemently opposed to the proposal from Botswana and Namibia. It is not just about elephants in the south [of Africa] - we should be concerned about elephants across Africa. We have seen the bitter fruits of intensive poaching in many parts of Africa," Omondi said. "We propose a 20-year moratorium to allow everyone who is concerned about elephants to study the situation, to plan better ways of stopping the illegal trade and to make decisions that will have a long-term impact for the conservation of elephants.” Poaching in many parts of Africa during the 1980s reduced the elephant population from an estimated 1,3 million in 1979 to between 500.000 and 600.000 now. In Zimbabwe there has been intensive poaching of wildlife since the government-backed land invasions began in 2000. Ten of thousands of wild animals, including elephants, have been killed by wire snares or shot on private game conservancies and in national parks, according to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, a privately operated wildlife non-governmental organisation. In January this year, poachers shot 17 elephants in the Hwange National Park and in October last year at least 11 elephants were killed in Chizarira National Park. The Zimbabwean government does not release poaching statistics.
Southern African nations have been vociferous supporters of the concept of sustainable utilisation of natural resources and have argued that, because the region has a substantial elephant population, they should be allowed to sell ivory and to hunt elephants. They will ask Cites for an annual ivory sales quota. In April a Southern African Development Community meeting of ministers responsible for the environment and sustainable development "unanimously urged all SADC member states to support the proposals from the region on sustainable utilisation of elephants and their products during the upcoming Cites [14th Conference of Parties]." A SADC communiqué added that member states were urged to oppose the proposal by Kenya and Mali.
South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe attended the meeting. Of these countries, only South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe have substantial, growing elephant populations. The Democratic Republic of Congo, which is also a member of SADC but did not attend the meeting, has given Kenya its written support for the moratorium. Blessing Manale, the chief director of communications at South Africa's department of environmental affairs and tourism (Deat), said that South Africa supported the proposal by Botswana and Namibia because elephant populations in the region were well managed. "We believe that sophisticated tagging systems and identification processes, including DNA testing, in use today can ensure that any legally sold ivory comes from well-managed populations in southern Africa," Manale said. "We believe we have a strong case to sell ivory to put money back into conservation." Botswana says in its proposal that it has about 160.000 elephants, Zimbabwe 90.000, South Africa 18.000 and Namibia 16.000, although some scientists say these figures are too high.
Both the southern African group and those supporting the Kenyan stance have visited Europe recently to lobby support for their positions. Traffic, a body established by the IUCN and the Worldwide Fund for Nature to monitor wildlife trade, released a study earlier this month indicating that the decimation of African elephants is being driven by Asian crime syndicates. The study says China is the biggest market for illegal ivory, but adds that there are markets in other countries too. Traffic and other organisations say the number of large hauls of ivory has doubled in a decade. There are on average 92 illegal ivory seizures globally each month, according to the Traffic report. The Kenyan submission to Cites lists at least 25 major ivory hauls between December 2004 and December 2006. "Among the most recent seizures are 3.000kg in Osaka, Japan, in August 2006, and 1.500kg in France in November 2006, while more than five tons were seized in two shipments in Taiwan in July," it says. (The Sunday independent, Johannesburg)

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