UN Body OK's One-Time Ivory Sale, Sparks Controversy

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
November 14, 2002
The votes on resuming the ivory trade have come in—and touched off
an international firestorm. For the past 10 days, 160 nations have met
in Santiago, Chile, at the U.N. Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species to discuss wildlife trade rules.

The meeting's most explosive issue was the ivory trade, banned since 1989. This year, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe had proposed to resume the ivory trade and to use the revenues for elephant conservation in their countries.

Kenya and India were opposed, arguing that resumption would trigger a resurgence of poaching, which would threaten elephant populations and, in turn, hurt safari tourism.

On Monday and Tuesday, CITES members voted to allow the "one-time" sale of 60 tons of ivory that have accumulated since 1989 in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa—at a world market value between $5 million and $10 million. One-time sales from Zambia and Zimbabwe were denied.

Ivory Gets the Green Light

"We are shocked that CITES has opened the ivory trade," says Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. "This will jeopardize the safety of elephants in the rest of Africa.

"South Africa, Namibia and Botswana are some of the wealthiest countries in Africa and they have much more to offer than ivory. CITES has given the green light to the ivory trade, which will increase poaching in countries that lack the resources to combat it."

Kenya delegate Paula Kahumbu argues that the ivory trade is starting up before international safeguard programs are in place.

"Resuming the ivory trade is about national politics and ignores scientific concerns," Kahumbu says.

On the other side, South Africa insists it needs ivory revenue to fund elephant conservation.

"This is the first recognition that we should have the chance to sell ivory to support conservation," says delegate Pam Yako, deputy director general at South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

Yako explains that the profits from the sale will provide more resources to increase monitoring of illegal activity, to buy land to extend the elephants' range and to improve fencing around the national parks.

Ken Maggs, who heads antipoaching intelligence for South Africa's national parks, points out that "Kruger National Park, where most of South Africa's elephants live, is over [5 million acres] and is patrolled regularly—a very expensive operation," Maggs says. "[The vote] is a victory for elephant conservation and for elephants."

Black Markets and Poaching

The United States supported the one-time sale, contingent upon two internationally maintained systems that track the poaching of elephants and the illegal ivory trade: MIKE (Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants) and ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System).

"But monitoring is not widespread, and neither ETIS nor MIKE is up and running," says Allan Thornton, director and co-founder of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), based in Washington, D.C., and London.

EIA has spent the last three years monitoring elephant poaching in Africa and the ivory black markets of Asia.

A one-time ivory sale occurred once before, in 1997, when CITES allowed Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell 50 tons of ivory to Japan.

Since then, the EIA says, the volume and frequency of black-market ivory shipments has increased, and the demand for ivory has boosted the incentive to poach.

"The legal trade just provides a cover for illegal ivory," Thornton maintains. "We are sending a signal to the African community that there is now a legal international market for ivory."

At CITES some nations pushed for an ivory quota to sell off stocks accumulated annually from natural deaths and culling. But CITES voted against quotas for now.

CITES policy calls for an 18-month lag before the stockpile doors open and the legal ivory trade resumes. Meanwhile nations are to reinforce their elephant monitoring and antipoaching efforts. Sometime in 2004, the world will have a new lesson in the tradeoff of profit and preservation.

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