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Wednesday, February 10, 1999 Published at 15:55 GMT


Ivory ban lifted

The tusks can raise money for conservation

The BBC's Richard Wilson: Game hunters will pay thousands of dollars to kill an elephant
The 10-year old ivory ban has been lifted. The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has agreed to a one-off sale of nearly 60 tonnes of stockpiled ivory.

The money raised by the sale will pay for conservation programmes in Africa. The decision was made after pressure from three southern African members at a meeting in Geneva.

They are Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana - known as the ZNB group - who 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.

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The ZNB countries said the proceeds from the sale of the ivory would be ploughed back into elephant conservation and community development. This would benefit all wildlife, including the elephants.

Zimbabwe and Namibia will provide the ivory for the sale. Botswana will be allowed to market its stocks once it has fully complied with safeguards laid down by the CITES Secretariat.

Large stockpiles

The ZNB countries have large stockpiles of ivory. Zimbabwe has the tusks of more than a thousand elephants stored in one strong room alone. Its current value is thought to be £10m.

[ image: African elephant: Driven towards extinction]
African elephant: Driven towards extinction
However, the decision to lift the ban has been attacked by other groups who fear it will once again open the door to illegal hunting. They say the safeguards promised by the ZNB countries to prevent poaching are not in place.

"It is clear that the criteria required by CITES for a resumption of ivory trade have not been met," said Bill Snape, legal director of Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife. "No trade should be approved unless clear evidence is presented that shows every requirement is thoroughly satisfied."

This view is supported by other African countries where elephant numbers have yet to recover from the poaching of the 1970s and 1980s.

Steep decline

Kenya, for example, has been one of the biggest supporters of the ban.

[ image: Ivory: There were big markets in some countries around the world]
Ivory: There were big markets in some countries around the world
It lost 85% of its elephants to poaching between 1973 and 1987.

Sudan reported a 30% annual decline, and Tanzania 16%. Across the continent, the rate of loss was huge. CITES said that between 1986 and 1989, more than 300,000 African elephants were killed - almost one third of the total.

The decline in the African elephant population was steep:

  • 1979 - 1.3 million
  • 1988 - 750,000
  • 1992 - 600,000
At that rate, it was estimated, the species could be driven to extinction by 2025. But the ban made a real difference.

[ image: Some fear this will open the door to poachers]
Some fear this will open the door to poachers
Kenya, which was losing 3,500 animals annually to the poachers in the early 1980s, lost about 50 in 1993.

The poachers' lucrative markets for the tusks - notably Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan - lost their supply source, and the trade in effect collapsed. Many African governments now fear the success of the ZNB countries in getting the ban lifted will rekindle the demand for ivory.

The BBC Science programme Horizon examines the arguments for and against the resumption of the ivory trade on Thursday, 11 February. The documentary is transmitted on BBC Two at 2125 GMT.

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UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species

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