AN acceleration in poaching has African and Western conservationists taking a fresh look at ways to protect the continent's elephants. A key African official leading preservation efforts has just made a surprise endorsement of one of the boldest plans under consideration - a selective, worldwide moratorium on the purchase and sale of ivory.
The idea of a moratorium on ivory trade is not a new one. But until now it has not had African backing. African governments make millions of dollars each year selling ivory. But they can make more from tourists if the elephants survive, African and other conservationists argue.
In the past 10 years, poaching has cut Africa's elephant population in half - from about 1.5 million to around 750,000 - wildlife experts say. At that rate, they point out, there could easily be only small groups of elephants left in another 15 to 20 years.
``We have to ask the world to give the elephant a breathing space,'' says Dr. Perez Olindo, chairman of an Africa-wide group studying ways to save the elephants. ``Stop the trade,'' he says.
In addition to a five-year moratorium, Dr. Olindo is calling for more international support for African anti-poaching efforts to combat those who would not abide by such a ban.
Olindo's announcement is considered important by international conservationists because he was speaking as chairman of the African Elephant Working Group, composed of officials from African nations with elephants. The African nations' cooperation is considered indispensable for any moratorium on the ivory trade to be effective.
Olindo says his statement represents an ``emerging consensus'' of the group, which has been studying how to slow the loss of elephants at the hands of poachers. Suggestions from members and their staffs will be reviewed at a meeting of member nations in Botswana in July.
Olindo was also, until last week, the head of Kenya's wildlife department. The new director, Dr. Richard Leakey, son of well-known anthropologists of the same name, says: ``This is a matter the Kenyan government has not yet made a decision on. I personally would favor a ban on all ivory trade. If we can get some of the big consumer countries behind this, it will be very positive.''
If accompanied by an increase in Western support for anti-poaching efforts, and a public relations campaign against ivory purchase, a moratorium could help slow the rapid destruction of Africa's elephants, says Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who works here for the World Wildlife Fund. ``Without that, a moratorium becomes window dressing,'' he says.
Olindo is calling for at least $21 million in new international support for African anti-poaching efforts. He urges conservation organizations around the world to do more than just complain about the loss of elephants.
``Instead of screaming in our ears, will they please put their checks on the table?'' he says. ``Conservation is not cheap.''
Poachers already have shot many of the older elephants, with the bigger tusks. Now the rate of killing is speeding up as poachers kill younger and younger elephants with smaller tusks, to keep up with world demand for ivory.
Japan is the major importer of carved ivory. Europe and the US are also major markets. Curbing Japanese hunger for ivory signature seals, jewelry, and carvings will require the help of Japanese experts, says Dr. Holly Dublin, a conservationist working in Kenya for the World Wildlife Fund. She says Japanese sympathetic to the plight of Africa's elephants need to appeal to the Japanese public to buy less ivory.
Some private organizations in the US, such as the African Wildlife Foundation, are considering endorsing a ban on ivory imports.
In the meantime, they have launched a media campaign to convince Americans not to buy ivory. One ad features a woman's ivory bracelets, calling them ``accessories to murder.''
The United States recently banned importation of ivory from Somalia, which is blamed for poaching Kenyan elephants. The ban prompted Hong Kong, the major exporter to the US of legal, carved ivory, to slap a similar ban on ivory from Somalia.
But conservationists caution that there are several reasons that bans alone are not likely to be effective.
Banning without enforcement is not going to work, says Esmond Bradley Martin, a World Wildlife Fund consultant here. And, he adds, the trade involves so many countries, that a ban would be nearly impossible to police.
David Western, director of Wildlife Conservation International's Nairobi office, suggests that banning the ivory trade is likely to do what bans against illicit drugs do - force the trade even further underground. About 80 percent of the ivory trade today is illegal, he says.
Mr. Western says more must be known about the ivory trade before it can be better controlled. He has organized a study effort by experts in various fields to examine the way ivory gets from the game parks to the consumers. The group's ideas will be finalized by early June and forwarded to the meeting of African nations in Botswana.
At the meeting, the African nations will study the findings from both groups and prepare a position for an October meeting in Switzerland of the Convention for Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the organization set up to control ivory sales. Most nations with elephant populations and most ivory-buying nations are members. CITES sets quotas for the sale of legally-obtained tusks by member countries.
Critics charge that the organization has failed to control the illegal ivory trade. For one thing, CITES has no enforcement mechanism.
This lack of policing power for quotas or, potentially, for bans, is another reason why conservationists say both the additional anti-poaching efforts and campaigns to persuade the public to buy less ivory are needed.
Several African nations, including South Africa and Zimbabwe, have more elephants than their parks can support. These countries kill surplus elephants and export the ivory.
Such countries ``should not be penalized'' by a world-wide ban on the ivory trade, says Dr. Martin.
Olindo says an exception should be made for such nations, as well as for ivory stocks taken from poachers and from elephants dying natural deaths.