National Geographic Today
In a secret location in South Africa's Kruger National Park, a vault holds 36 tons of elephant ivory and rhino horn valued at around $3 million dollars.
By international rules, South Africa cannot sell any of the wildlife treasure. But that may change.
"When we were still allowed to sell ivory, we sold it at auction once or twice a year," said Herman Coetzee, for 32 years the custodian of the ivory at Kruger, ensuring that each piece is registered, documented, and traceablein anticipation of the day when trade would resume.
"But since the ban" in 1989, he said, "we haven't sold any ivory."
The fate of the vault's contents is in the balance this week and next in Santiago, Chile, where 160 nations have gathered to discuss wildlife trade at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a UN-affiliated group, that convenes every two and a half years.
On the agenda are 59 proposals involving the minke whale, yellow-naped Amazon parrot, bigleaf mahogany, Malaysian giant turtle, and Patagonian toothfish, among others.
Perhaps no proposal, though, is more controversial than one to resume the ivory trade. The debate is complex and the stakes, not only for elephants, are high.
Profit and Preservation
"There's a war fought over the elephants heremen die on both sides, poachers and anti-poaching rangers, with a lot of elephants in between," said Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a wildlife orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya.
Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia want to resume the ivory trade and use the proceeds to fund elephant conservation.
On the other side, India and Kenya argue that resuming trade would encourage poaching, threaten elephant populations, and, consequently, harm Kenya's booming safari industry.
Resuming the ivory trade would allow certain countries to sell their old stockpilesfrom legal kills of elephants or natural deathsand establish annual quotas.