June 02, 2002
Five southern African countries have submitted proposals to lift
the world ban on ivory trading. The 158 members of the Convention
on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will meet in
Santiago, Chile, in November, to decide whether to accept, reject
or modify the proposals.
International trade in ivory was banned in 1989. In 1997, Botswana,
Namibia and Zimbabwe persuaded CITES to allow one-time sales from
stockpiles of raw ivory, to fund conservation and community projects.
This year, these three countries plus South Africa are proposing
a one-off sale of existing ivory stocks, to be followed by annual
quotas. The proposals are for a first sale of 20,000 kg and an annual
quota of 4,000 kg for Botswana, 10,000 kg and 2,000 kg respectively
for Namibia, 30,000 kg and 2,000 kg for South Africa and 10,000
and 5,000 for Zimbabwe. Zambia is also proposing a one-off sale
of 17,000 kg.
Will Travers, chief executive of the Born Free foundation, which
led the successful campaign to bring about the 1989 ban, says: "I
am extremely nervous that if these countries are allowed to start
trading in ivory it will give the green light to smugglers and poachers.
"The situation is already very serious, with the numbers of
confiscated tusks increasing. It is not just the elephants that
are threatened. Park rangers are overstretched and in danger of
poachers wielding AK47s," he told New Scientist.
Between 1900 and 1989, the African elephant population dropped from
over 10 million to just 600,000. Today there are less than 500,000
African elephants. The Asian elephant population numbers under 50,000
But some African countries, including South Africa, say that their
elephant populations are too large to be sustainable and they will
have to cull herds.
"The annual decline in African elephants is actually accelerating,"
Travers says. "Culling is a sovereign decision for each country
that we are opposed to but have no control over. But trade in ivory
is a completely separate issue. The average elephant tusk weighs
about 3.5 kg - the proposed first annual sale of tusks by the five
countries already amounts to more than 11,000 dead elephants."
But Travers is fairly optimistic that public support for the total
ban on trade in elephant products will ensure that CITES upholds
the prohibition. India and Kenya are campaigning to keep the ban
"I think there will be a lot of support for India and Kenya.
Also, the security, economic and environmental situation in Zimbabwe
is so precarious that CITES will be especially unwilling to allow
tusk sales there. This may scupper the other countries' chances,"