African countries set to lock horns over ivory

Thursday, May 31, 2007

AFRICAN countries are set to lock horns at a conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) over calls for a relaxation of a ban on trade in ivory.

The meeting from June 3 to 15 in The Hague will consider a proposal submitted by Botswana and Namibia and supported by South Africa and Zimbabwe for the four countries to be allowed to sell ivory under an annual quota and to sell off current stockpiles.

The proposal, pitting the east and west of the continent against the south, has been the subject of furious debate, at the heart of which is the elephant, emblem of the savannah.

The proposal is vehemently opposed by East and West African countries led by Kenya and Mali, that have called for a 20-year moratorium on all trade in ivory, arguing that any easing of the current ban will embolden poachers.

From an estimated 1.3 million in 1979 the number of elephants in Africa nosedived to a current level of between 500,000 and 600,000 on the back of intensive poaching during the 1980s, according to Animal Rights Africa.

Amid fears that the animal was facing extinction, a Cites treaty drawn up in 1973, to which 171 countries became signatories, puts the elephant on its list of animals threatened with extinction9, effectively prohibiting all trade in elephants or elephant products.

The ban led to a decline in poaching and elephant numbers stabilised in many areas, most notably in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. These countries are now home to "substantial, growing elephant populations", the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) says.

Such has been the growth in elephant population in South Africa and Zimbabwe that the two countries have raised the spectre of a return to the culling in a bid to curb their numbers of the mammoth creatures.

In the meantime South Africa, Botswana and Namibia have been stockpiling tusks from elephants that die in national parks in the hope of selling it to raise money for conservation.

The demand for ivory, used in the production of jewellery, knives, ornaments and other objects, is particularly strong in Asian countries such as China and Japan.

In 2002 the three countries were given permission by Cites to sell 60 tonnes from their stocks but the sales were later suspended, with Cites indicating it was not satisfied the sale would not stimulate poaching.

Apart from the right to sell their stockpiles and trade in ivory Namibia and Botswana are also asking that Cites to change the status of their elephant populations so that they are no longer considered endangered.

Kenya and Mali, which have spearheaded the campaign against any downgrading of elephants to a lesser protected species, maintain any opening up of the ivory trade will aggravate poaching, amid signs of a fresh spike in the practise.

Wildlife monitoring network Traffic says the number of large hauls of ivory has doubled in a decade, and that about 20,000 elephants are killed by poachers each year.

In a report, Kenya and Mali said 41 tonnes of ivory were confiscated by authorities worldwide between December 2004 and December 2006, of which 13 tonnes came from Zimbabwe and Zambia, who are lobbying for an end to to ivory ban. The Internet has also become a conduit for the sale in trafficked ivory products, with one bid for a pair of "antique ivory" Asian elephant tusks opening at a mere US$20 ($31) in an online auction on eBay.

Some 19 African states signed a 2006 Accra declaration calling for a total ban on the ivory trade and a total 20 countries attended a meeting in Nairobi in May to support calls for a moratorium.

"A 20-year moratorium should allow enforcement authorities in Africa to build up their capacity in terms of trying to fight off poaching," said Elizabeth Wamba, an IFAW officer in Nairobi.

Once such mechanisms are in place and elephants can be better protected, the debate on extending the ban could be reopened, she said, adding that IFAW remained opposed to all trade in ivory. DPA