- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2002

The 13-year-old global ban on the ivory trade has been hailed as a conservation triumph; a drastic, last-ditch move that saved the world's dwindling elephant population. Now, at an international conference on trade in endangered animals that begins Sunday, five southern African nations are asking permission to partially lift that ban and begin selling ivory.
It is an idea that horrifies many environmentalists, who fear that in only a matter of time the mass slaughter would begin again.
"To allow legal trade at the moment, I think it would be opening a Pandora's box," said Joseph Kioko, director of Kenya Wildlife Services.
South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia disagree.
They argue they now have healthy elephant populations in some cases, huge herds that are destroying the environment and should not be punished for other countries' problems.
They are asking the 160 countries that signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to let them sell a total of 96 tons of ivory in a one-shot sale to help clear out their stockpiles, collected mainly from elephants that died naturally.
Additionally, they want approval to sell 14 tons more each year. The money would help finance their cash-starved elephant conservation and management programs.
Experts estimate that the ivory might sell for $45 a pound and that South Africa alone could raise $3 million from its proposed one-time sale and about $200,000 a year after that.
"We have a natural resource and how do we make use of that?" asked Pam Yako, a top South African environmental official who is leading her country's delegation to the CITES meeting in Santiago, Chile.
"Let's open the issue up. Let's debate it," she said.
Conservationists and officials in Kenya and India, both with threatened elephant populations, say that even discussing the issue encourages poaching as smugglers anticipate using legal ivory sales to mask their illegal ivory.
So far this year, 81 elephants have been poached in Kenya, Kenya Wildlife Services said. In all of last year, 67 elephants were killed.
Kenya, which has about 30,000 elephants, fears a return to the days before the trade ban, when 3,000 to 4,000 of its elephants were killed a year.
In 1980, there were 1.2 million African and Asian elephants in the world. A decade later, that population had been halved. The total has stabilized since the ban, with 500,000 elephants in Africa and fewer than 50,000 in Asia.
Conservationists oppose the proposed ivory sale, fearing that the difficulty in distinguishing between legal and illegal tusks would lead to increased killings.
If some sales are allowed, "the illegal trade will once again take on enormous proportions," Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey said. "Even in Kenya, where we have a very large wildlife authority, we would be hard pressed to contain it."
The illegal trade is already large.
Last year, authorities seized nearly 14 tons of ivory, according to the Elephant Trade Information System, which was set up by CITES to monitor ivory trafficking.
Much of that ivory was destined for Asian markets. With the rapid increase in the Chinese middle class in recent years, that country's demand for ivory name stamps and elaborate carvings has exploded, said Tom Milliken, an official with Traffic, a joint program of the World Wide Fund for Nature and IUCN-The World Conservation Union that monitors trade in endangered species.
Officials in Botswana have done so well at protecting their elephants, however, they fear a different sort of environmental disaster.
A decade ago, Botswana had 54,000 elephants, which officials thought was too many for their arid country. Now, they have about 120,000.
During the dry season, elephants congregate in the country's few wet areas, and the herds have gotten so big they are damaging ecologically sensitive zones, said Joseph Matlhare, director of Botswana's department of wildlife and national parks.
Mr. Matlhare worries elephants are endangering some acacia species and mopani trees around the Chobe River now "a moon landscape." The habitat of the Chobe bushbuck, a rare antelope, is being threatened and other antelope also are struggling, he said.
Mr. Milliken, of Traffic, recently counted 2,000 elephants wandering through the Chobe area in a few hours and knocking down trees.
"It just looked like a battle zone with the vegetation," he said. "Some of that could be fairly irreversible."
Mr. Matlhare said ivory sales could inject desperately needed cash into programs to better manage the elephants, possibly by culling, and to protect the environment and compensate communities in areas where elephants destroy crops and frighten cattle.
It would also save Botswana the expense of building new, secure storage facilities to hold its growing ivory stocks.
"We are victims of our own success," he said.
A century ago, elephants were nearly extinct in southern Africa, but in recent years the region's strong conservation policies have helped save them. Protecting elephants is also far easier there because many of the animals live in game parks and can be monitored, while elsewhere on the continent the animals roam free, conservation experts say.
In 1903, wildlife officials put the elephant population in South Africa's Kruger National Park at zero. Now, officials estimate there are 10,000 elephants there.
Much of South Africa's ivory treasure sits in a small, nondescript building behind a barbed-wire fence just inside Kruger's gates. The padlocked vault door can only be opened with two keys, each held by a different wildlife official.
Nearly 5,000 pieces of ivory from huge tusks to smaller fragments fill the musty, windowless room. The room alone holds almost 41 tons of ivory, nearly all of it taken from elephants that died of natural causes in the park.
Many environmentalists argue that the risks of increased poaching far outweigh the benefits from selling such stocks.
"For a few million dollars, which is all that ivory represents, let's not start a crisis," Mr. Leakey said. "Let's find another way to fund our wildlife, to keep the ivory off the market, because at the end of the day, it will cost more to fight the poachers than we will gain by selling a bit of ivory."
Traffic opposes loosening ivory restrictions for now, saying proper monitoring systems are not in place. But in the future, responsible ivory sales might be possible, Mr. Milliken said.
He said the debate has focused attention on the problem of imposing a uniform global policy when some areas are overpopulated with elephants while the herds in other regions are "teetering on the brink of extinction."
"It's a delicate equation to balance," he said.

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