November 15, 2002

SOUTHERN AFRICA: Lifting of the ban on ivory

The United Nations Convention on Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Santiago, Chile on Tuesday, November 12, decided to allow Namibia, Botswana and South Africa to hold a one-off sale of ivory. Namibia was given permission to hold a single sale of 10 tonnes of ivory, Botswana was allowed to sell 20 tonnes of ivory and South Africa 30 tonnes. CITES has rejected similar requests from Zambia (17 tonnes) and Zimbabwe (10 tonnes). The five African countries had asked to sell off a total 87 tonnes, and wanted CITES to allow annual quotas for ivory exports. But the two latter countries failed to convince the 160 countries represented at CITES that effective antipoaching policies were in place to prevent a rise in illegal killing of elephants if the proposed stockpile of 27 tons of ivory was sold.

Conservationists say the decision may open the door to elephant poaching. Sixty tons of ivory will come onto a market starved since a 12 year ban was put into place by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which regulates the trade of animals threatened with extinction.

Opposition to the CITES decision was not based on the fact that ivory would be sold openly once again, albeit in a limited way. Rather, the legal trade in ivory, it is feared, may open the door to elephant poaching which has been the scourge of many African countries in the 1980s.

The debate about trade in Chile once again highlighted the sharply contrasting views on conservation management not only between developed and developing countries, but also between developing countries in Africa and Asia. Cash-strapped governments that face more pressing budgetary priorities say a once-off ivory sale would bring in muchneeded funds for wildlife management and in particular, the management of elephant populations in conservation parks and boosting anti-poaching programmes. CITES secretary-general Willem Wijnstekers says conservation management in "poorer nations" has to benefit local communities and bring in "cash for conservation. In the African context, a conservation strategy based on sustainable use may offer elephants the best possible long-term future. The key is finding solutions that benefit states that rely on tourism as well as those that seek income from elephant products," he says.

This is the line of argument used by the five countries. Botswana, Namibia and South Africa's combined lobbying efforts in Chile paid off, with surprise support coming late in the day from the US. The US delegation agreed to support the easing of the ban if there were strict regulations to control the sale. In return, the southern African countries changed their proposals to exclude requests to sell an annual quota of ivory.

South Africa estimated it would earn in excess of R20m from the sale of its 30-ton ivory stockpile in Kruger National Park. It also argued that effective conservation policies had boosted the African elephant population in southern Africa to levels where it had reached overcapacity. The SA National Parks said African elephant populations in southern Africa had grown from as little at 120 in the 1920s to more than 13000 in 2002, of which 9000 was in the Kruger National Park. Poaching was also under control in SA, with five recorded incidents of elephant poaching in the Kruger National Park since 1997 and none in the past two years. This is a turn around from earlier decades, when up to 102 elephants were illegally killed in 1982 alone.

The big test when it comes to the sale of the 60 tons of ivory from Botswana, Namibia and SA will be in how the trade is controlled. Details have yet to be thrashed out between the CITES secretariat and the respective governments on how the sale would be conducted, but the secretariat has already made statements aimed at placating critics of the process.

The sale will only take place in May 2004, which gives the secretariat enough time to monitor whether elephant poaching was on the rise as poachers take advantage of a resumption in legal trade. The secretariat then inspects the stockpile to ensure that the origins are "acceptable" that is, from elephants that have died of natural causes or that have been culled for conservation purposes (a practice that South Africa discontinued in 1994). Any ivory confiscated because of poaching or of unidentifiable origins would not be sold.

Conservationists are more concerned with the message the easing of the ban on ivory sends out to poachers than with the strict control of the trade, which is not in dispute. The International Fund for Animal Welfare said there was a "strong incentive" for poachers to take risks in killing elephants illegally if they perceive there is a market for ivory that has been created through the legal trade. "It is not a question about the (Botswana, Namibia and SA) governments' management of the sale or managing poaching. But the legal market for ivory encourages an illegal market. Who is going to control the ivory that is being bought?" says Christina Pretorious of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. (Business Day, Johannesburg / The Namibian, Windhoek)

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