Saving Africa's Elephants

THE great elephants of Africa mean different things to different people. To the romantic, they are the symbol of Africa - fearless giants which roam the bush at will, reminders of an age when Africa's vastness was unfettered, and when wild animals were profuse.

The sportsman sees a different object in his rifle-scope - a potential trophy whose curving tusks can be mounted on his study wall.

The environmentalist sees the elephant as the fulcrum of crisis - a vanishing breed to be saved by drastic means.

The poacher sees the elephant only for its tusks - tusks whose ivory can be sold at vast profit after the animal is illegally killed.

The African farmer often sees the elephant as a giant pest. The elephant eats about 300 pounds a day. It strips great swaths of the land of vegetation. It tramples its way through farm land, ruining crops.

No matter how one views them, the elephants of Africa are in jeopardy and there is no easy solution to saving them.

In less than a decade, Africa's elephants have declined from around 1,200,000 to 600,000.

Why not, then, impose a total ban on the ivory trade as some African countries are suggesting? If it is illegal to trade in elephant tusks, surely the killing will stop and the elephant population will increase. Well it is not quite that easy, according to some experts. They argue that a ban on the ivory trade would simply make ivory more desirable, more expensive, and that poachers would keep on killing elephants to get it.

One alternative to this uncontrolled killing, according to a number of other African countries, is controlled killing. Elephant herds would be controlled in size, preventing them from damaging farmers' crops. Controlled culling would produce revenue, partly by selling the tusks for their ivory, and partly by charging foreign sportsmen fat fees for their trophies.

The revenue produced would be shared with local tribesmen, thus giving them an interest in preserving the elephants. A dead elephant yields one pair of tusks. But a living elephant would be a continuing source of revenue; in Kenya, for example, tourism is the No. 1 foreign exchange earner, and most tourists want to see the elephants.

South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana have followed this latter approach and their elephant populations have remained stable. Therefore they are against the ban on ivory trading being discussed in Switzerland at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.

By contrast, Kenya and Tanzania have lost huge numbers of elephants in the 1980s, and they are urging a total ban on ivory trading. Their supporters argue that however well controlled any legal trade in ivory may be, its existence makes it harder to stop illegal smuggling.

Some countries have already banned the importation of ivory. The result has been a sharp drop in its price. But critics of the ban argue that this is merely a short-term phenomenon; ultimately, they say, the scarcity of ivory will increase the price on the black market and the lure of profit will encourage poachers and smugglers despite the risks.

Those opposing the total ban say that it has not worked in other circumstances. They point, for instance, to the attempt to stamp out trading in rhinoceros horns, much prized in Asia. Despite a trading ban, poaching continues on a major scale and Africa's black rhinoceros population has slumped from more than 70,000 to less than 4,000 in 15 years. The black rhinoceros rarer, smaller, and more evil-tempered than the so-called white rhino.

One good effect is that although argument over the solution to the problem continues, the plight of the African elephant has been given substantial publicity.

Governments are ready to act. Environmentalists are aroused. Wildlife organizations are campaigning.

When an African elephant scents danger, his big ears flap, he trumpets in alarm, and he gets ready to charge. Perhaps the world, now scenting danger to the elephant, is ready to make a modest advance.

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