THE African elephant is in mortal danger. The poachers' guns, silenced for two years, are firing again. And for good reason: The ivory trade could be legal by this summer.
In 1989, the 112-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) approved a United States-sponsored proposal that banned commercial trade in elephant ivory. Smugglers could no longer use forged or stolen permits to disguise their contraband.
Within months, ivory markets collapsed, prices tumbled, and poaching - which had killed 70,000 elephants a year - fell by 80 percent in most of Africa.
But last June Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi agreed to establish a Southern African Centre for Ivory Marketing (SACIM). Joining South Africa, they have applied to have the ban lifted for their territories. Their proposals will be considered in March, when the CITES parties meet in Japan.
Led by Zimbabwe, they have begun a massive - and misleading - campaign to bring back the ivory trade. Hard-line bureaucrats in the US Fish and Wildlife Service, lobbied by wealthy trophy hunters, have embraced Zimbabwe's position. They claim that Zimbabwe's "superior" wildlife management deserves to be rewarded. The private Environmental Investigation Agency, however, reports that Zimbabwe's Wildlife Department is demoralized, inefficient, and weakened by corruption.
Zimbabwe and Botswana claim to have "surplus" elephants that must be controlled for the good of their environment - something CITES does not prevent. This has nothing to do with the ivory ban. Selective killing does not encourage poachers; selling the ivory does.
There are better ways to derive economic benefits from elephants than restarting the ivory trade. In Kenya, living elephants bring in $20 million a year in tourist revenues. For most of Africa, the ivory ban has saved money that had been needed to fight poachers. That is why Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, and other countries oppose any return of legal ivory trade.
In early January the new government of Zambia agreed. It withdrew its proposal to end the ban, claiming that it had never been properly consulted by Zimbabwe in the first place.
The SACIM cartel will not stop the poachers if trade reopens - assuming its still unfunded ivory center is ever built. Its central marketing floor guarantees that the legitimacy of ivory shipments will be determined by the poorest enforcer in the cartel. According to elephant biologist Dr. Jeheskel Shoshani, isotope-measuring techniques SACIM hopes to use to identify smuggled ivory may be useless for forensic purposes. SACIM permits the sale of confiscated ivory smuggled from other countries.
SACIM expects to sell ivory for $500 a kilo - 10 times the 1989 African market price. To approximate such a return it must drive prices back to pre-ban levels, recreating the situation that led to the catastrophic decline of elephant populations through the 1980s. That will be just what the poachers are waiting for.
Poaching is up throughout the SACIM region. While poaching incidents in Kenya decreased from 1,500 to 1989 to 30 in 1990, in Zimbabwe they rose from 30 to 100. According to Dr. Esmond Bradley Martin of the World Wildlife Fund, a clandestine ivory trade route has sprung up from Zambia into South Africa, and South Africa's government has had to step up enforcement against ivory smugglers. Plainly the poachers, given a choice between countries enforcing the international ban, such as Kenya, and others inten t on trading in ivory come what may, go where the action is.
Elephant expert Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton believes that re-opening the trade would be a recipe for disaster, and even the chief executive of South Africa's National Parks, Dr. G. A. Robinson, has opposed his own government's plans to legalize ivory sales.
The poachers themselves are proving these experts' fears correct. Last November, after 15 months without a single incident, poachers (thought to have been a Ugandan army unit) crossed into Kenya and killed three elephants after a nine-hour shoot-out with game wardens. On Jan. 16, an armed gang shot dead two of Kenya's best anti-poaching officers near Meru National Park.
In 1989 America demanded an end to the ivory trade. If the US delegation gives in to South Africa and Zimbabwe at the March meeting, it will be abandoning its own position, the American people's convictions, and the African elephant.