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African Ivory Still Making Its Way To Asia

March 16, 2010

The black market trade of African ivory has been linked to Asian crime organizations and may affect the efforts made by Zambia and Tanzania to sell off their legally acquired tusks, according to experts at a UN wildlife trade meeting.

When the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species last held a conference in 2007, they voted on a nine-year suspension on exports of African ivory. The ban started in 2008, after South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe had a one-time sale of their ivory stockpile to Japan and China.

But at the new meeting held in Doha, Qatari, Zambia and Tanzania are asking the 175-nation council for permission to sell off their ivory stocks, which have been taken legally from animals that were either culled or died naturally. The two countries need a two-thirds majority ruling in their favor to get the permission granted.

23 of the nations in the council that have elephant-range habitats in their countries, not only oppose the measure, but want the ban to be extended to 20 years.

“The 2007 moratorium was meant to ensure there would be no markets (for ivory) in neighboring countries. At first, it created panic among the poachers,” said Cosma Wilungula Balongelwa, a delegate from the Democratic Republic of Congo. But now they regrouped and operate with military tactics, he told AFP.

“They fire on herds with rocket launchers. In Salonga Park — at 14,000 square miles the largest in Africa — our 140 rangers are completely overwhelmed,” he added. Hundreds of elephants in just a few short months have been illegally slaughtered. “These are not amateurs. A local network would never be able to handle this volume of contraband,” he said.

Experts have questioned allowing the sale of state-held ivory, as poaching has continued to rise. Officials for CITES argued in 2007 that the one-time sale to unload the ivory would depress the price of illegal ivory and thus discourage poaching.

However, elephants killed by poaching have soared, particularly in central Africa. In Kenya, the numbers went from 47 killed in 2007, to 234 in 2009. And in Chad, the numbers of tusked elephants in the wild has dropped from nearly 4,000 to only 617 at the end of 2009.

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu, an expert on illegal ivory trade at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told AFP that poachers have taken on military style tactics in these countries. “In December, 80 poachers entered the Central African Republic from Sudan and killed 36 elephants. Then they moved into the DRC and Cameroon. They had heavy arms and were divided into three units — shooters, cutters and transporters,” she said.

There is also evidence of Asian-run crime organizations “moving large volumes of ivory from Africa to Asia,” said Tom Milliken, who monitors illegal trade in east and southern Africa for green group TRAFFIC.

“At home, China claims to have a tightly controlled regime for trading in ivory, and imposes the death penalty for large-scale infringements. Chinese nationals living in Africa seem oblivious to this,” Milliken told the news agency.

A study published in the journal Science last week recommended that proposals from Zambia and Tanzania be denied until the impact of ivory trade is better understood.

“The immediate fear is that … allowing one-off sales in any African nation will stimulate the market for illegal ivory everywhere, particularly in those countries where law enforcement is inadequate,” said one of the co-authors, Rene Beyers, a researcher at the University of British Columbia.

Zambia holds 21 tons and Tanzania 89 tons of legally taken ivory stocks. But both countries are also among the most significant source of illegal ivory, based on DNA testing of seized contraband, according to the study.

Image Caption: The tusks and face of an elephant killed for its ivory lie on the ground in an African forest. (Karl Ammann/University of Washington)

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