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Thursday, March 18, 1999 Published at 11:10 GMT

World: Africa

Ivory heads for Japan

Before the ivory ban, African elephants were approaching extinction

For the first time in 10 years ivory tusks go on sale after the temporary lifting of an international ban.

Juliet Hindell: New supplies may mean lower prices and greater demand
From Thursday, three African nations are being allowed to export stockpiled ivory to Japan, the world's main consumer of ivory with craftsman making figures and prestigious seals for use on official documents.

The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) agreed to a one-off sale of nearly 60 tonnes of stockpiled ivory with money raised going towards conservation programmes in Africa.

The decision was made after pressure from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe at a meeting in Geneva in February.

Juliet Hindell reports from Rokogo, the home of ivory seal makers
Over the next three months, Namibia has been authorised to make a one-off sale of 13.8 tonnes, Zimbabwe 20 tonnes and, once it has complied with safeguards, Botswana 25 tonnes.

Campaigners against the ivory trade fear it will spark a new demand for ivory and encourage smuggling.

Namibian auction

In Namibia, an ivory auction takes place on 7 April with only Japanese bidders taking part.

[ image: Some fear this will open the door to poachers]
Some fear this will open the door to poachers
The one-off auction was given the go-ahead by a Cites committee. Local conservationists say the money raised will be used to protect their crops and water supplies, under assault from southern Africa's burgeoning elephant population.

None of the tusks for sale come from poachers - the elephants died naturally or were culled.

In Japan, ivory craftsmen have welcomed the move and sales of ivory in Japan are expected to rise.

In the 1980s Japan was the biggest buyer of ivory in the world. In that decade the population of the African elephant dropped by half.

Elephant populations

Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana - known as the ZNB group - argue their herds of African elephants are now so large they are damaging the environment. They say the elephants are destroying the vegetation on which other animal species depend. The elephants are also accused of trampling croplands.

They have large stockpiles of ivory. Zimbabwe has the tusks of more than 1,000 elephants stored in one strong room alone. Its current value is thought to be £10m.

In other African countries elephant numbers have yet to recover from the poaching of the 1970s and 1980s.

Kenya, has been one of the biggest supporters of the ban. It lost 85% of its elephants to poaching between 1973 and 1987.

After the ban Kenya, which was losing 3,500 animals annually to poachers in the early 1980s, only lost about 50 in 1993.

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