December 22, 2009

African Nations To Debate Policy On Ivory Sales

On the eve of a an international conference aiming to protect the world's endangered species, a number of African nations are struggling to reach a consensus on whether they should allow new stockpiles of ivory to be dumped on the markets.

As elephant populations have rebounded over most of the continent in recent years and poachers are making higher-than-ever profits on illicit ivory sales, a number of officials have begun arguing that troves of confiscated ivory should be sold legally by the government, thus lowering the market price of the valuable product and making illegal poaching and sales of elephant tusks less profitable to poachers.

Zambia and Tanzania in particular, appear to be spearheading the policy shift and have petitioned the Convention on International Trade in International Species (CITES) conference in March of next year to allow them to sell a total of 112 tons of ivory.

The current ban on ivory sales was put in place since 1989 to protect rapidly diminishing populations of elephants and rhinos across the continent.  Current elephant populations in Africa are estimated to be somewhere around a half a million, more than half of which are concentrated in southern Africa.  These numbers represent a significant increase over the numbers recorded in the 1980's but are still nowhere near the millions that are thought to have roamed the continent's plains a hundred years ago.

However, the giant creatures are still rare in western and central regions of the continent are not to be found at all in countries like Burundi, Mauritania, Sierra Leone and Gambia.

"We don't want to see elephants survive just in one corner of Africa, just in southern Africa," said Patrick Omondi of the Kenyan delegation to the Doha talks.

The previous CITES conference in 2007 quickly devolved into bitter confrontations between various countries' delegates, as several ivory rich nations were granted a special exemption and allowed to sell over 100 tons to China and Japan while the general ban on ivory sales was extended for another nine years.

Various wildlife protection organizations contended that this massive sale of ivory served to elevate the demand for the precious bone-like substance.  Their arguments have struck an emotional chord for many despite the fact that they seem to fly in the face of the basic laws of economics.

The year following the large-scale legalized sales did, however, see a corresponding rise in illegal poaching activities in some countries.  In Kenya, for example, the number of illegally poached elephants skyrocketed from 47 in 2007 to 214 in 2009.

"If the trend continues this way, we can expect to see the extinction of the elephant in our lifetime," stated Patricia Awori of the Pan African Wildlife Conservation Network.

"Our position is that the international community should sustain the ban of selling ivory and rhino horns," added Kenyan Wildlife Minister Noah Wekesa in a news conference with AFP. "By perpetuation of poaching, we will eliminate these animals."

Tanzanian officials have taken a different approach, arguing that their national elephant population has climbed so much in recent years that the massive mammals have become a pest to struggling farmers

"Elephants are increasingly becoming a nuisance to poor farmers who are progressively becoming opponents to their conservation. The sale of ivory seized or collected from animals that have died a natural death is the best way of making the population aware of the value of the animal," commented the Tanzanian government in an official statement to the CITES committee.

With current market prices for ivory hovering around 375 dollars a pound, someone stands to make an enormous profit from the nearly 15 tons of illegally poached ivory confiscated this year.

"It is really getting out of control," explained Awori. "It has become like the drug trade."