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Ivory Sale Gets Green Light From Wildlife Trade Watchdog

James Owen
for National Geographic News
June 4, 2007
 
The sale of 60 tons of African elephant ivory to Japan has been approved by the international body that oversees trade in endangered wildlife.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, came to the decision on June 2 at the start of a major conference in Hague, the Netherlands.

CITES is an agreement between 171 countries that meet every two to three years to review more than 7,000 animals and 32,000 plants for which trade is regulated. About 800 species are banned completely from commerce, including elephants.

But CITES' authorization of the one-off ivory sale has split wildlife conservation groups and African nations, with those opposed to the move saying it will fuel the slaughter of elephants by poachers.

The ivory comes from animals in southern Africa that died of natural causes or from legal culling. The stockpile consists of 30 tons from South Africa, 20 tons from Botswana, and 10 tons from Namibia.

Proceeds from the sale will go towards funding conservation efforts, officials from the three countries said.

The export had been agreed on in principle in 2002 but was conditional on the establishment of an effective system for monitoring elephant populations and illegal poaching and on Japan's ability to comply with resale restrictions.

Both requirements have now been met, the CITES standing committee decided.

The new measures could open the way for similar decisions in the future, allowing some countries to seek income from elephant products to finance wildlife conservation, said Willem Wijnstekers, the convention's secretary-general.

Driving Up Demand?

But other African countries have opposed the sale, which is an exception to the global ivory trade ban introduced in 1989. Delegates from Kenya and Mali said that such exceptions should be ruled out for at least 20 years.

Trade in legal ivory, these countries argued, "provides an opportunity for laundering large quantities of illegal ivory."

Various wildlife conservation groups share these concerns.

The CITES decision is "a disgrace," said Peter Pueschel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), based in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts.

"Japan clearly fails to meet the bar set by the CITES framework for such sales," he added in a statement.

Pueschel noted that 2.8 tons of illegal ivory was seized in Osaka, Japan, only last year (see a photo of the ivory seizure).

The price of ivory in Japan has risen to a record of U.S. $850 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), from U.S. $500 per kilogram in 1994.

IFAW says demand for ivory is driving the slaughter of at least 20,000 elephants a year.

A recent study also suggested that Asian criminal gangs are behind an upsurge in trade in illegal ivory.

TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade-monitoring network run by the conservation nonprofit WWF and the United Nations' World Conservation Union, found that seizures of contraband ivory weighing at least a ton have almost doubled in recent years.

The study blamed these increases on traffickers from China and other Asian countries.

Under Control

Yet WWF supports the newly approved ivory sale to Japan, which follows a similar agreement made in 1997.

There is no evidence that illegal trade in ivory is fueled by a one-off sale, according to Joanna Benn of the WWF Global Species Programme.

"This is probably going to be the most monitored controlled sale in the history of conservation," Benn said.

"All the revenue from the stockpile has been pledged to go straight back to elephants and conservation," she added.

Recent research shows that West and Central Africa are the main sources of illegal ivory, WWF says (Africa map).

Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa, meanwhile, "have the strongest elephant management regimes anywhere in the world at the moment," Benn said. "This is why they've been so successful with their elephant populations."

In recognition of this, CITES allows southern African countries to deal in certain elephant products through a permit system.

The current 12-day conference will also debate proposals to grant export quotas to Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe for elephant hides, leather goods, and live animals.

Delegates will also vote on whether to relax ivory trade restrictions, which in the future could lead to limited sales.

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