New Policy on Elephants

March 15, 1992

Isn't the elephant the traditional symbol of the Republican Party? Then why is President Bush pushing to relax the international ban on elephant hunting that protects this endangered species -- a ban he personally helped establish in 1989?

Critics of the president's move say the ban has prevented the elephant from going the way of the American bison. Over the past 20 years, ivory poachers in Kenya and Tanzania nearly hunted the elephant to extinction. The herds declined from 2.5 million in 1970 to only about 350,000 today.

That is why Mr. Bush's flip-flop has puzzled conservationists. Thirty senators and wildlife groups have excoriated him for backing six Southern African nations seeking to modify the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, which outlaws killing elephants and trading in ivory. The administration, however, seems to be pursuing a sensible course.

While the 1989 accord helped East African countries like Kenya, where poaching has decimated the elephant population, it hurt the nations of Southern Africa, such as Zimbabwe, which already had well-managed conservation programs. There the ban has led to overpopulation by preventing officials from culling healthy herds. Elephants have wandered through flower gardens, sipped from swimming pools and stripped the tops off trees in settled areas. Some have even killed people. That is why these countries want to be able to reduce the size of the herds and sell the ivory to benefit local communities.

Mr. Bush is walking a fine line between those who oppose killing elephants for any reason and the needs of countries being penalized for their previous conservation success. Critics should realize that countries like Zimbabwe, which are being eaten out of house and home by elephants, eventually will be forced to kill the animals anyway.

Safeguards are needed to let these countries take the action legally, while maintaining restrictions that deter poaching in countries like Kenya. The U.S. has pledged to keep in place a ban on ivory imports into this country. That's a step toward recognizing that there must be some reasonable balance between the requirements of the region's fragile economies and the worldwide desire to save the elephant from extinction.

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