OPINIONS differ on the best way to save the African elephant. But few would argue that this magnificent creature is not threatened. The numbers of elephants on the continent plunged from 1.3 million in 1970 to about 625,000 today. Poaching, spurred by a vigorous market for ivory, accounts for most of this decline. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, this week, voted to classify the elephant as endangered and thus ban trade in its tusks. We welcome this. Given the failure of many African countries to curb poaching and the danger of irreversible damage to herds as younger and younger elephants are taken, something had to be done to undermine the market for ivory. Unilateral bans on ivory imports by the United States and Japan earlier this year showed that such steps can cut prices and dry up sales.
While the vote in Lausanne was lopsided in favor of a ban, opponents were vocal. Some African countries, notably Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa, have successfully managed their elephant herds, culling some animals to protect habitat and legally selling ivory and meat.
These countries reject the ban, and some have already announced their intention to leave the convention in order to maintain their current practices.
There may yet be a way to accommodate a very limited, legal trade in ivory. Certainly, more countries should be guided toward effective management of their herds. For now, however, a ban is needed - both as a statement of international repugnance at the slaughter of elephants and as a means of blocking a deadly commerce in ivory.