Ivory stocks might be sold


Elephants: Five nations in southern Africa seek to raise money by disposing of stockpiled tusks, but some conservationists predict a resurgence in poaching.

October 22, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SKUKUZA, South Africa -- One of the world's largest stockpiles of ivory is housed in a concrete-walled vault here at the headquarters of South Africa's Kruger National Park. More than 5,000 elephant tusks -- some as tall as a grown man -- are stacked floor to ceiling like timber in the garage-sized room.

"I don't know how much it's all worth," says Hermanus Coetzee, who manages the stockpile, after pulling open the iron vault door and gazing up at the tusks as if they were bars of gold.

If South Africa has its way, the world will soon find out.

Thirteen years after a ban on the international trade of ivory, South Africa and four other southern African nations are seeking to sell their ivory stockpiles and resume annual sales.

The proposal, however, has sparked protest from conservationists and other African nations, who fear the proposed sale will launch a new era of elephant poaching.

The trade ban dates to 1989, when a wave of poaching led to the rapid destruction of African elephants. During the 1980s, poachers killed off half of Africa's elephants, reducing the continent's population from 1.2 million to 600,000.

In a dramatic appeal for consumers to stop buying ivory that year, Kenya's wildlife services director, Richard Leakey, took a match to a pyramid of 2,000 elephant tusks, making headlines around the world.

Almost overnight, the ivory market collapsed. Piano makers switched from ivory to plastic keys. Ivory jewelry and trinkets fell out of fashion. Incidents of poaching also declined.

But 13 years later, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia -- countries overflowing with elephants and ivory -- say it is time to relax the ban.

The five countries are seeking approval for a special sale of their combined 87 tons of stockpiled ivory -- and limited annual sales thereafter. They will be making their case next month in Santiago, Chile, at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or CITES, a United Nations organization that regulates the ivory trade.

The southern African nations argue that their elephant populations are on the rise and the ivory profits will finance much needed projects to protect elephants. South Africa is unclear about how much its 30-ton stockpile will fetch, but officials expect to make at least $3 million to $4 million.

Southern Africa's plans, however, will meet vehement opposition from conservationists and the governments of Kenya and India, who say that such sales would be irresponsible, endangering the lives of both African and Asian elephants.

Asia's elephant population has dwindled to about 50,000, more than half of them in India. African elephants that once roamed the entire continent to the Mediterranean Sea now live mostly in isolated pockets of 36 sub-Saharan African nations. The most drastic declines have occurred in East, West and North Africa.

But in southern Africa, where half the continent's population lives, elephant numbers are stable or increasing. Botswana has an elephant population of 120,000, in space for 50,000. Zambia has about 30,000 elephants, and Zimbabwe's population is estimated to be 80,000.

South Africa, which had 120 elephants in 1920, has watched its population climb to more than 13,000. Ten-thousand of the elephants live in Kruger National Park -- a park the size of Israel -- where overcrowding is forcing park officials to consider culling elephants, as they have in the past, and experiment with birth control.

By comparison, Kenya lost 85 percent of its elephants during the worst years of poaching in the 1970s and early 1980s and is still recovering. At next month's CITES meeting, Kenya, joined by India, will be lobbying to place elephants on a list of the world's most endangered species, a move that would prohibit even legal ivory trade.

"We are very worried," said Joseph Kioko, director of Kenya Wildlife Services. "South Africa never went through the catastrophe we went through in the 1970s and 1980s. We know from that experience that if the legal trade of ivory is allowed, people will start poaching."

Kenyan officials say a one-time experimental ivory sale by Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to Japan in 1997 -- that was approved by CITES -- undermined the ban and helped reopen the illegal ivory market. If this newest sale is approved, it will only make the poaching situation worse, Kenyan wildlife officials say.

In the past two years, more than 1,000 African elephants and 39 Asian elephants have been found poached for their ivory, and the ivory of 3,000 elephants has been seized worldwide, according to Kenyan officials. In recent months, authorities have seized 3 tons of illegal ivory in Tanzania and 6 tons in Singapore.

The biggest demand for ivory is in Asia. In Japan, ivory is used for making traditional personal seals known as hankos and other crafts. In China, ivory is carved into chess sets, chopsticks, jewelry and walking sticks or used as an investment as a hedge against inflation.

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