During the 20th century, poaching for ivory sent the populations of African and Asian elephants hurtling towards extinction. But then, following a 1990 ban on the trade of ivory, they began to stage a remarkable comeback, leading many conservationists to believe that the battle had been won. Now, however, it's the ivory trade that is staging a comeback, and it has wildlife campaigners worried. And as the CITES Standing Committee deliberates over whether or not to sanction a sale of stockpiled ivory, there are fears that once again, the world's elephants are in peril.
Mike Fay's career could be described as one of the most demoralising in conservation. Having worked in Central Africa for more than 20 years, he has seen the region almost emptied of its wildlife. But two years ago, he was offered a rare opportunity for optimism during a visit to Zakouma National Park in southern Chad, one of the few strongholds for large mammals in the Central African savannah.
Fay had heard about Zakouma--every conservationist who knows the region knows about Zakouma--but had never had the chance to visit before. And when he did, he wasn't disappointed. Flying over the 300,000-hectare park in a light aircraft, he could barely believe his eyes. "This place isn't just good," he thought, "it's spectacular."
Peering out of the window, he saw below him hundreds of giraffe, thousands of antelope and thousands more buffalo. In an area where populations of large mammals had been in virtual terminal decline since 1970, it felt good to see that those in Zakouma were thriving. Most thrilling of all were the huge herds of elephants roaming the woody savannah--each made up of several hundred individuals--something that was unheard of in this part of the world.
However, the sight of the elephants also sounded a note of caution in Fay's mind. His experience in Central African Republic had taught him how quickly things could change in this part of the world. It wouldn't be too long before poachers turned to the treasure trove in Zakouma, he thought.
So, in an effort to support the valiant conservation efforts of Zakouma's park rangers, Fay raised the funds to conduct a series of aerial elephant surveys. His first effort, in 2004, counted 3,885. But his second, earlier this year, found only 3,020. It was possible that a herd of 800 elephants had simply left the park to forage, but his intuition told him there was trouble.
His fears were soon confirmed when he found the remains of 100 fresh carcasses and disturbed two hunters' camps: the poachers who had wiped out almost 300,000 elephants from the region in the past 30 years had turned to Zakouma.
Fay, along with the whole conservation community, believed the war against the ivory trade had ended back in 1990, when an international ban led to a dramatic decline of elephant poaching. "Everyone stopped buying ivory at the time," he explains, "so the poachers could no longer sell it."
Now, however, it seems that Fay's old foes are back, eager to supply a growing demand for ivory. "Selling ivory in Central Africa today is like selling eggs at a farmers' market," he says. "There are all kinds of people in every town who are willing to buy."
But the resurgence isn't just taking place in Central Africa. The available evidence suggests that in recent years, the level of trade in ivory has been increasing steadily all over the world. Since the turn of the century, customs officials and police have seized more than 64 tonnes of raw and worked ivory all over Africa and Asia, as well as in Europe and North America and even parts of South America and the Pacific Islands. And recent research shows that markets in 25 African and Asian countries may be selling as much as 83 tonnes of worked ivory every year--the equivalent of more than 12,000 elephants--worth more than US$8million (4.3million [pounds sterling]).
"It's a disaster," says Esmond Martin, an independent environmental investigator and authority on the ivory trade. …