"Ivory is not a product that people can eat or use for medicinal purposes, said Paula Kahumbu, the CITES coordinator for the Kenya Wildlife Service. "It's a product of vanitymade into necklaces or game boards, things where alternatives could be used."
The 1989 ban arose after poaching devastated elephant populations during the 1980s; the number of African elephants fell from 1.5 million to 600,000. In Kenya, elephants declined from approximately 120,000 to fewer than 19,000, Kahumbu said.
Conservation efforts, including vigorous anti-poaching efforts, have helped replenish elephant populations. Now the debate is raging about whether a resumed ivory trade, even under strict controls, encourages poaching.
"The possibility of trade in ivory reopening has already resulted in ivory stockpiling and illegal killing of elephants in various parts of Africa," Kahumbu said.
Asian markets are especially hungry for ivory. In 2002, China, Hong Kong, and Japan recorded their largest ivory seizures since the ban was instituted in 1989, according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-government organization based in Washington, D.C., and London.
The South Africans counter that protecting elephants comes at a cost that the ivory trade can help defray.
"We in the Kruger have been very fortunate, we have finances to be able to back our operations," said Ken Maggs, who heads anti-poaching efforts in South Africa's national parks. Protected reserves, aerial patrols, and ground militia are among those efforts.
Other countries, he pointed out, may not be so fortunate.
"The big difference between South Africa and Kenya is that [South Africa's] elephants are in a very few protected areas," Kahumbu said. "They only have 10,000 elephants, Kenya has almost 30,000 elephants."
"And if the South African proposal to trade in ivory results in greater threats to our elephants, it means that we are the ones bearing the cost, not South Africa," she added.
The Kenyan Wildlife Service is a highly trained paramilitary company, operating on a strict "shoot to kill" policy.
"One of the most expensive items in our annual budget is protection of wildlife," Kahumbu said.
In 1989, to indicate the Kenya Wildlife Service's commitment to a ban on ivory, Richard Leakey, the famous paleontologist and then director of the agency, built a pyre of more than 2,000 tuskssome $3 million dollars worthand set it on fire. A monument to the burn, erected in Nairobi National Park, demonstrates Kenyans' refusal to put a price on ivory.
That price is necessary, the South Africans say, to ensure the future of the elephants. In faraway Santiago, the issues are on the table.
National Geographic Today, 7 p.m. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news journal available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to learn more about it.
Bookmark this page for National Geographic News stories updated daily: Go>>
Related Stories from Nationalgeographic.com:
Snorkeling Elephants and the Secrets of Breathing
Pheromone in Urine Spurs Mating in Elephants
"Elephant Excess" NGM photo gallery
Elephants May "Talk" Via Vibrations
Painting Elephants Get Online Gallery (with photo gallery)
Opinion: How Do You Miss a Whole Elephant Species?
Elephants Airlifted to Repopulate War-Torn Park in Angola
DNA Tests Show African Elephants Are Two Species
Join the National Geographic Society
Join the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization, and help further our mission to increase and diffuse knowledge of the world and all that is in it. Membership dues are used to fund exploration and educational projects and members also receive 12 annual issues of the Society's official journal, National Geographic. Click here for details of our latest subscription offer: Go>>