Efforts to stop poaching of African elephants for their tusks have been frustrated by a lack of resources, cooperation with poachers in some countries, and the increasing value of ivory as tusks have become more scarce. So now, in hopes that cutting demand for ivory products will put a crimp in supply, conservationists are asking American consumers to stop buying ivory for a while. More than 80 percent of the 89,000 elephants killed each year for their tusks are destroyed illegally, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
This poaching has resulted in the loss of half the elephant population in the past 10 years. In 1978, where there were 1.5 million of the animals, today only an estimated 700,000 are left, says Diana McMeekin, vice-president at the African Wildlife Foundation.
Each year, about 800 tons of raw ivory - valued at $50 million - is carved into $500 mil-lion worth of items like jewelry and jewelry cases, brushes, ornaments, dice, and piano keys.
Both the African and American Wildlife Foundations met in Washington earlier this month to launch the ``Year of the Elephant'' campaign, a banner under which their voluntary boycott message will be broadcast in public-service announcements on radio, in magazine ads, with, they expect, the cooperation of merchants and jewelry distributors in the United States.
``We will ask the major merchants to shelve their ivory products for the duration of the campaign,'' Ms. McMeekin says. ``We assume that by itself, ivory doesn't represent an important part of revenues for the major sellers.''
Even though products like billiard balls or piano keys are usually made out of legally obtained ivory, says Cynthia Moss, a senior researcher with the African Wildlife Foundation, there is no reliable way to distinguish the 20 percent of legal ivory products from the 80 percent that are carved from poached tusks. ``We would like to ask [Americans] to voluntarily refrain from buying all ivory,'' she says.
The African Wildlife Foundation began its campaign in the US, hoping ``there will be a [globally] contagious effect,'' McMeekin says.
But although the US imports one-third of the market's carved ivory, it consumes only between 5 and 10 percent of total ivory, both raw and worked.
``Japan probably consumes close to 75 percent of all raw and carved ivory traded within a year,'' says Jorgen Thomsen, a biologist with Traffic USA, a program of the World Wildlife Fund, which monitors global wildlife trade. ``Most of Japan's carved ivory products never show up in the world market, because they never leave Japan.''
Ivory is a major part of Japanese culture. Most adults, for example, own a name seal that they use to sign papers or checks, and the most prized seals are made from ivory, says Mr. Thomsen.
The US imports about $30 million worth of ivory, the tusks of some 27,000 elephants, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Of this, 95 percent comes through Hong Kong.
Legislation calling for a total ban on ivory imports was introduced last July by Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D) of California. An aide says the Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and the Environment will begin hearings on the measure at the end of June.
But even if US demand for ivory products were to dry up, it would not necessarily decrease world demand or illegal poaching.
Though the House aide says that ``almost no one supports a complete ban,'' the suggestion has angered several African nations, which regard a total ban by the US as insensitive and arrogant, says McMeekin at the African Wildlife Foundation.
Part of the opposition comes from countries that ``cull'' their elephant populations to maintain a correct ecological balance, according to an official from the Zimbabwean Embassy.
In 1985, the government of Zimbabwe sold $100,000 worth of legally culled elephant tusks to the US. Though that country was not included in the list of African nations targeted by the congressional proposal to ban US imports, the official says, other small nations that sell some elephant products but have a high level of poaching would probably feel the effect of a ban.
Because his country is small, the official says, ``you can never minimize what little we can get from our exports.'' There are 30 African countries that export some amount of ivory.
Ivory enables these nations, which have very few exportable minerals and natural resources of their own, but depend heavily on foreign goods, to get hard currency, the official says.
``The idea that the elephant's not going to last forever has created an even larger demand for it,'' and ivory is being stockpiled, McMeekin says.