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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 11:32 GMT
Elephants in the firing line
African elephants
Herds are increasing in southern Africa but not elsewhere

The decision to allow sales of ivory has brought an angry response from environmental campaigners.

The meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) voted to allow Botswana, Namibia and South Africa to make one-off sales of ivory from their stockpiles.

This was denounced by some conservationists as the death knell for African elephants, while being welcomed by those who believe sales fund conservation.


[Elephants] will now be targeted by well-organised poaching gangs to feed the increased demand that will be created for illegal ivory

International Fund for Animal Welfare
The opponents of sales believe that legalisation of the trade, however limited, will lead to an expansion in poaching.

The governments that want to sell ivory, argue that the proceeds will be used to conserve elephants and provide local communities with income.

Amid the arguments that will follow the vote, Cites now has to develop a system of monitoring of legal sales to see if they do lead to increased poaching.

Elephants as a resource

The vote to allow limited sales means that work must now start to gather data on current elephant populations and poaching levels.

Existing stocks of legal ivory must be registered and verified before any ivory is sold.

Cites has set May 2004 as the earliest date for the resumption of sales by the three southern African countries.

They applied - as did Zambia and Zimbabwe whose applications were rejected - for permission to sell ivory in order to provide funds for continuing conservation efforts.

They believe that income from ivory will help convince people in areas with large elephant populations that they are a valuable resource not a threat.

The Botswana Government says successful conservation means the country has an expanding elephant population that is outgrowing the ability of its habitat to support it.

It says culling is necessary and legal ivory stocks are accumulating.

Felix Monggae, of Botswana's Kalahari Conservation Society, is in favour of sales.

"We support the government view of selling its ivory to benefit the communities which are living in areas populated by elephants.

"We think the communities should not see the elephants as a menace but rather as a resource."

'Death warrant' for elephants

The attempt to get permission to sell ivory involved behind the scenes deals at the Cites meeting.

To get the applications through, the three countries agreed to drop requests for annual sales quotas and be satisfied with a one-off sale.

Agreed ivory sales
Botswana - 20 tonnes
Namibia - 10 tonnes
South Africa - 30 tonnes
This brought US support which led to the vote in favour.

Many wildlife conservation groups have roundly condemned it.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) said the Cites decision was "a death warrant for thousands of elephants... which will now be targeted by well-organised poaching gangs to feed the increased demand that will be created for illegal ivory".

Ifaw and other environmental groups, as well as the Kenyan Wildlife Service, argue that legal sales always lead to increased poaching and smuggling.

Victim of poachers
Poaching remains a serious problem
The Kenyans have already said there was an increase in poaching in the run-up to the Cites vote.

Sustainable use

Michael Wamithi, Ifaw's regional director for East Africa and formerly of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, says the vote "was a terrible loss for elephants in Africa and Asia, and for the many elephant range states that will now have to battle to protect their elephants from the certain increase in illegal poaching".

The difference in approach to ivory sales between African countries arises from the success achieved in southern Africa in controlling poaching and enabling elephant populations to recover.

Kenyan wildlife rangers
Kenya take anti-poaching operations seriously
Botswana, Namibia and South Africa say they now have growing populations that have to be culled.

Kenya and Tanzania are still fighting serious poaching problems.

They agree that elephant numbers might be increasing in the south, but fear that ivory sales will hit them harder through ever greater poaching.

The arguments will continue as heatedly as in the past, but now Cites will have to concentrate on implementing the decisions on ivory sales and the monitoring of trade and poaching.

The Cites secretary-general, Willem Wijnstekers, stressed this in comments after the vote and appeared to support the concept of utilising ivory sales for conservation.

"While richer countries can often afford to promote conservation through strict protection, many poorer nations must do so in ways that benefit local communities.

"In the African context, a conservation strategy based on sustainable use may offer elephants the best possible long-term future," he said.

See also:

12 Nov 02 | Science/Nature
30 Oct 02 | Hardtalk
02 Nov 02 | In Depth
14 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
04 Oct 02 | Asia-Pacific
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