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Tuesday, 12 November, 2002, 17:02 GMT
On DR Congo's ivory trail
Kenyan orphan elephant
Campaigners are worried about the future of the elephant

Beside a roadside stall in the middle of this lush bush in the town of Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is plenty of ivory on sale - maybe a dozen elephant tusks on display, intricately carved and worked.

They cost $100, $200 or even more to buy.


Things are bad for us here. We can't sell ivory - we can't help our children

Festus
Ivory trader
But no one is coming to buy these gleaming trinkets, fashioned from Congolese ivory. The bracelets, swinging gently on strings above the stalls, are going cheap.

The traders' difficulties have partly been caused by the international ban on the ivory trade and partly by the United Nations.

UN peacekeepers have been deployed in Kisangani to monitor a ceasefire in DR Congo's four-year war. Their presence has also deterred the illegal trade in ivory.

Condemnation

Stallholders like Festus are fed up with wildlife campaigners.

"Your politics are bad. It's because of your politics that we can't pay our rent. We want you to change your approach."

Zimbabwe ivory auction
Ivory make their way into markets in the far east
"Things are bad for us here. We can't sell ivory - we can't help our children. That's why we condemn what you, in the West, are doing," Festus adds.

DR Congo's ivory is no longer being bought openly by the roadside in Kisangani. But it is leaving by other routes.

A recent report by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, found that the Democratic Republic of Congo was one of the major sources of illegally trafficked ivory in the world.

Hiding Place

Leonard Mubalama is a Congolese conservationist.

He says Kahuzi Biega national park used to be one of East Africa's best nature reserves.

Kenyan wildlife rangers
Kenya take anti-poaching operations seriously
It is now a hiding place for armed groups.

The militias have hunted the elephants to the point of extinction. They've channelled the ivory into the hands of well-known dealers.

"These people use this contact between them. They stay under the cover in the forest and people who were dealing with them outside the country," Mr Mubalama said.

The ivory route leads out through the ports of East Africa and into the markets of the Far East.

Stockpile

The porous African border, ineffective customs controls and corrupt officials make smuggling easy.

Rob Barnet works for Traffic, an organisation which monitors trade affecting endangered species.

He told the BBC about the means through which ivory is smuggled:

"There's many different ways - in the diesel tanks of lorries through borders in coffee consignments - many, many different ways".

A stockpile of ivory is kept under lock and key at Kenyan Wildlife Service headquarters in Nairobi.

Hundreds of tusks - some small maybe only half a metre long, and some very, very big tusks - are piled up in a strongroom.

Impossible

Kenya is already experiencing a rise in elephant slaughter. Officials say poachers are preparing for the easing of the ivory ban.

Omar Bashir is the deputy director of the wildlife service. He says his cash-strapped organisation will not be able to cope.

Ivory on sale in Bangkok
Ivory products are openly on sale in Thailand
"The range of the elephants is 137,000 square kilometres. Now you can imagine the problems when these are going to be harmed - not in ones or twos, like what we're seeing now - but they will be harmed in 10s and 20s."

Before the international ban, Kenyan was losing 3,000 elephants a year. The moratorium has not destroyed the ivory trade but it has dramatically reduced it.

In Kisangani, the stallholders are already trying out a new business - wood carving.

The money is not as good but the men here say they do not have an option.

The generations-old skill of ivory carving is being abandoned.

Elephant campaigners in Santiago, Chile, are fighting to keep it that way.

See also:

02 Nov 02 | In Depth
30 Oct 02 | Hardtalk
14 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
04 Oct 02 | Asia-Pacific
13 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
14 May 02 | Science/Nature
01 Nov 02 | Africa
01 Nov 02 | Business
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