Magazine article International Wildlife

To Ban or Not to Ban? That Will Be the Question for Nations Meeting in June to Decide Whether to Modify a Prohibition on Selling Elephant Parts

Magazine article International Wildlife

To Ban or Not to Ban? That Will Be the Question for Nations Meeting in June to Decide Whether to Modify a Prohibition on Selling Elephant Parts

Article excerpt

When representatives of the 134 nations that have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meet this June in Zimbabwe, they will decide whether to modify a worldwide ban on the sale of African elephant parts, including ivory. The ban, enacted in 1989, is widely credited with saving the African elephant from poachers who, during the 1980s, slaughtered more than 70,000 of the animals yearly for tusks. Research at the time indicated that this mortality was 20 times what the con- tinent-wide elephant population could sustain. Extinction loomed in many regions.

Almost immediately after the ban went into effect, elephant poaching dropped off--up to 90 percent in some nations. But the decision to end the ivory trade, then worth an estimated $60 million a year in Africa, was contentious from the start, when 16 elephant-range states voted for the ban, with 8 in opposition. This year, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Malawi are on record as opposing continuation of the ivory ban.

The historic split among elephant-range nations (African elephants live in 35 countries) goes back in part to how each fared during the worst poaching years and how trade would affect them now. Pro-trade nations generally did not suf- fer such catastrophic elephant losses as did their neighbors, and they argue that they should not be penalized for population declines or management problems elsewhere. Money from ivory sales would benefit them economically, they say, and help to fund conservation.

Their opponents respond that controlling the ivory trade is impossible. Even Zimbabwe, the most vocal trade proponent, has failed, they argue. Last year, for instance, a CITES monitoring body found evidence that tons of ivory were illegally exported from Zimbabwe to other countries, including Japan and China. Because there is no sure way to tell legal ivory from illegal, say the pro-ban people, any legal commerce will spawn an illegal trade that will result in a new continent-wide poaching assault on elephants.

The primary issue the CITES delegates must decide is whether Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia should be allowed to sell stockpiled ivory legally. Together with Malawi and South Africa, they hold 500 to 600 tons.

Many contentious questions swirl around the periphery of the debate, in some cases drawing attention away from trade. But the level of the rhetoric has become something of an issue itself, especially on these points:

Conservation funding.

The ivory market, say pro-trade nations, will generate income for conservation and for impoverished African citizens. …

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