Ivory Conservation Push Gains Momentum As Crucial Vote Approaches

KENYA set fire to some 12 tons of ivory, worth at least $3.5 million this week. The purpose of the fire: To ``send a signal to consumers [of ivory] in Western Europe and North America that we're serious about taking ivory off the market,'' says Richard Leakey, director of Kenya's Wildlife Department.

Kenya's stand is one of a series world-wide to draw attention to the plight of the African elephant. The climax comes in October when some 100 nations will vote on whether to ban international ivory trade.

Poachers are slaughtering elephants for their ivory tusks so fast experts say, that without drastic action, only small numbers are likely to survive in most African countries beyond the next 15 to 20 years.

But South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe oppose a total ban on the ivory trade. They argue that their countries have more elephants than the environment can support and that some need to be killed. These countries sell the ivory and do not want to lose revenues.

Conservationists in the West and other African nations see more money in tourism from live elephants than from ivory sales. And they view anything less than a total ban as ineffective. If even a few nations keep exporting ivory, poachers will continue to funnel ivory through those countries, the conservationists argue.

A compromise may be in the making: a ban supported by most African nations; the others continuing to export ivory, but under strict, new, internationally supervised controls which might include sealing and registering ivory containers direct to consumer countries.

To build support for a total ban in the lead up to the Oct. 9 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Switzerland, a series of actions have been taken:

Most African nations with elephants - with the exception of South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe - are calling for a ban on ivory trade.

Last month, President George Bush announced a ban on all ivory imports to the US. The EC, Japan, and Hong Kong recently announced import restrictions.

Private conservation groups in Europe and the US, are campaigning to convince people to stop buying ivory and to give financial support to help African nations combat poachers.

These accumulative efforts amount to a ``snowball effect,'' says Dr. Perez Olindo, of the African Wildlife Foundation. But if the vote in October goes against a ban in the ivory trade, the snowball ``may melt,'' he says.

Conservationists expect one of two measures to be approved in the meeting: either a permanent ban; or a temporary ban - moratorium - allowing more time to study the size of the ivory excess and how to regulate sales from those countries.

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