Enlist Ivory Carvers to Help Save Elephants?

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While helping to stabilize African elephant populations, the ban also set the stage for an ongoing battle between conservationists and countries in Africa with stockpiles of ivory. In 1998, CITES estimated that 15 countries were storing a total of close to 200 tons (200,000 kilograms) of ivory.

Ivory stockpiles accumulate through the death of elephants due to natural causes, culling, government-regulation, problem-animal control, and confiscation of poached ivory.

Ivory-producing states argue that the sale of legal ivory can offset the considerable costs associated with elephants. Surplus elephant populations damage crops and destroy the habitat of other wildlife. Even in countries with sustainable elephant populations the cost is high; money is needed to enforce anti-poaching laws, to guard stockpiles, to run the parks, and, if necessary, to relocate elephants.

The money from stockpile sales is pumped back into elephant conservation.

In 1997, CITES delegates approved a one-time sale of 50 tons (50,000 kilograms) of surplus ivory by three southern African nations.

The sale, which took place in 1999, sparked a huge controversy. Advocates lauded it as an African solution for an African problem. Opponents argued that it increased ivory demand and thus fueled a surge in poaching. They also say it conveyed the wrong message to consumers, telling people that it's now all right to buy ivory.

"The big question is: What effect do limited sales of government stockpiles have on elephant populations?" said Stiles. "There's not a lot of data available. But the Asian experience could provide some clues."

Asian Experience

The explosion in tourism and economic development in Asia starting in the 1970s contributed to the development of the ivory carving industry in Southeast Asia.

"When African ivory supplies were cut off in 1990 due to the CITES trade ban, poachers turned to Asian elephant populations," said Stiles. "Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia lost more than 60 percent of their elephants in 10 years. Since the mid-1990s, smuggling rings and routes between Africa and Asia have emerged."

Stiles and Esmond Martin, a wildlife trade expert, visited 22 cities in 15 African countries to assess local ivory markets in 1999 under the auspices of the group Save the Elephants, which opposes stockpile selling. Under a grant from the National Geographic Society, Stiles went on to conduct in-depth studies of the carvers in Southeast Asia. His results suggest a possible way forward.

Carved ivory sales in most Southeast Asian countries remained legal through much of the 1990s.

"Thailand has the largest ivory market of any country in Asia or Africa due to its 10 million tourists a year," said Stiles. "Large quantities of African and Burmese raw ivory and Chinese worked ivory, which comes raw from Africa, is being smuggled in to satisfy demand."

However, governments in the region are slowly cracking down, and trade is gradually collapsing. Thai police and customs agents conducted a raid in Phayuha Kiri, a village with around 30 ivory carving workshops, in December 2002. Thousands of pieces of raw and worked ivory were confiscated and workers were charged with tax and import violations.

The story in Vietnam is similar. Vietnam's elephant population fell from around 1,750 in 1990 to only 135 in 2000. Even trained timber elephants were poached. Vietnam banned ivory sales in 1995, and as the law becomes better enforced, fewer and fewer ivory carvers are working.

The Licensing Solution

The carvers want to continue working with ivory. Speaking to Stiles after the December 2002 raid in Phayuha Kiri, Thi Sangwanli explained the frustration he and fellow carvers feel.

"I am a third-generation ivory carver," said Sangwanli. "I've lost everything; what am I going to do now?"

By licensing only master craftsmen like Sangwanli, who would be responsible for ensuring that the ivory comes from a legitimate source, the carving industry can be swung back to producing high quality pieces, suggests Stiles. The jewelry and trinkets being created for the tourist trade can be made by lesser carvers using wood, stone, jade, or bone.

"In all of Asia, there probably aren't more than 300 master carvers," said Stiles. "There are huge amounts of ivory being produced in a manner that doesn't involve poaching. There's more than enough to sustain highly skilled craftsmen at current levels of demand."

In addition, allowing sales of surplus African ivory could have the added benefit of taking the pressure off of Asian elephants, he said.

Fight for Quotas

At the most recent CITES meeting, held in Santiago in November 2002, three African nations gained approval for another one-time sale of stockpiled ivory. The sale is not to take place before May 2004, to allow time for monitoring systems to be put in place.

But the real goal of ivory producing nations is the eventual establishment of annual quotas. This can only work if demand is reduced, said Stiles.

"A complete ban on ivory would actually be a loss," he said. "A cultural loss, and an artistic loss. After seeing and studying some of the ivory carvings being produced, it's amazingly beautiful."

Nationalgeographic.com resources:
Do Disney's Real Elephants Have Tales to Tell?
In Africa, Decoding the "Language" of Elephants
Elephants May "Talk" Via Vibrations
Snorkeling Elephants and the Secrets of Breathing
Satellites Reveal How Rare Elephants Survive Desert
Scientist Finds that Plants Regulate Elephant Populations
Pheromone in Urine Spurs Mating in Elephants
DNA Tests Show African Elephants Are Two Species
Opinion: How Do You Miss a Whole Elephant Species?
UN Body OK's One-Time Ivory Sale, Sparks Controversy
Elephants Airlifted to Repopulate War-Torn Park in Angola
"Elephant Excess" National Geographic Magazine photo gallery
Zoo Life Shortens Elephant Lives in Europe, Study Says
Reporter's Notebook: Elephants Heal at Thai "Heaven"
Activists Denounce Thailand's Elephant "Crushing" Ritual
Explorer Mike Fay Survives Elephant Attack in Gabon
Painting Elephants Get Online Gallery
Cross-Border Park Is Africa's Largest Wildlife Refuge

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