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

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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.

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.

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