THE elephant is famous for its long life and long memory. Now, with a lot of help from mankind, it may have a fighting chance to enjoy both. The African elephant joined its Asian brother on the endangered species list Tuesday, following a vote by parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The listing means all trade in ivory and other elephant byproducts is banned.
However, the designation contains a critical rider: Healthy, well-managed elephant populations may be removed in the future from the endangered list, which would permit controlled trading in ivory and other byproducts.
The compromise rider came after some of the 11 countries who opposed the ban threatened Monday to withdraw from CITES if the motion was approved. Among the most ardent objectors were Zimbabwe and Botswana, who have relatively healthy, growing herds of elephants and have often been held up as good examples of CITES's ivory quota system.
To meet these countries' objections, CITES committees are reviewing at what point their elephants can be removed from the endangered list.
``African nations are the ones who have these herds, and we need their full support,'' said Curtis Bohlen, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund.
The impact of the new listing is uncertain. It is hoped the ban will drastically reduce trade in ivory, which is largely responsible for cutting the African elephant population in half. Over the past 10 years numbers have dropped from 1.4 million to about 750,000 - by some estimates the population is as low as 350,000.
Sympathy for the animal comes easily: Despite its dominance over other animals, the elephant is basically a plant-eating, peace-loving creature with strong family ties. An elephant cannot survive without its tusks, which it uses mainly for foraging. As older members of a herd are killed for their tusks, younger ones suffer from the lack of their elders' experience and a critical loss of affection.
Keeping elephant families together also serves an environmental goal, conservationists point out. The elephant uproots trees in dense woodland, freeing it for other wildlife and encouraging new growth. It opens waterholes with its giant feet, providing drinking water for other creatures.
Desertification and human encroachment have helped shrink the elephant's territory and contributed to its decline, but ivory poaching is the major killer. And CITES delegates were at odds as to how to stop the culling.
Although the convention comes under the auspices of the United Nations, but its Ivory Trade Unit is funded separately by governments, conservation groups, and the ivory trade itself. The last provides two-thirds of its budget.
These clashing interests within the Ivory Trade Unit often created acrimonious discussions. Southern African countries, with relatively small poaching problems, squared off against those from East Africa such as Kenya and Tanzania, whose herds are being decimated. While Hong Kong promised to temporarily halt trade - along with Japan, it is one of the largest consumers of ivory in the world - it pleaded employment casualties if trade were to end completely.
Debate is likely to continue despite the new listing simply because a ban on trade in ivory will not stop the illegal traffic. Two of the worst smuggling centers, according to CITES, are the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan, neither of which are signatories.
As long as there is a market anywhere, ivory will find its way out of Africa, where official corruption and inefficient customs allow poachers to export. Last summer several countries, including European Community members, declared ivory trade illegal, but about 300 kilograms were confiscated in Spain not long after.
In the end, the only sure control will be a sharply reduced consumer demand.