This week the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which governs the import and export of wild animals and products made from them, is debating whether to reopen the ivory trade. How the United States votes will tilt the scales, because its favor weighs more heavily than ivory profits with Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, the three southern African countries authoring the proposal.
In 1989, these same nations fought CITES when it listed elephants as endangered and banned all trade, and this is not their first attempt to lift the ban. This year, after heavy lobbying, their proposal stands a chance.
Need for accountability
They offer a plausible argument. First, the elephants in these three countries are not endangered. Indeed, their populations are healthy. Second, they have huge ivory stockpiles and little cash. Two of the three nations would invest profits in conservation. All three have earned praise for recent conservation efforts.
The problem with the proposal lies in its ramifications beyond their borders - in nations where the number of elephants had shrunk by 90 percent before the 1989 ban. Elephants died at the rate of 300 per day. Today, censuses estimate that 500,000 elephants roam African forests and savannahs, but accuracy varies by as much as 50,000, as herds migrate across borders and countries count at different times. Field experts say it will take 50 years for populations to recover, not the eight that have elapsed since the ban.
No one can differentiate between legal and illegal ivory. According to Mike Faye, director of the Congo program of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), no country - not even one of these three - has a plan for law enforcement to ensure that only legal ivory reaches the market. Without that accountability, experts warn, recent successful conservation efforts are in jeopardy.
Today ivory smuggling occurs even in countries with good conservation and little poaching, like Zimbabwe. Last year, Mr. Faye and a US television crew came across 200 carcasses, faces hacked away, in a clearing in a northern Congo forest. Worse yet, poachers have returned to Kenya's Amboseli Reserve, where Cynthia Moss's 26-year field study of elephant behavior lost two of a handful of prime breeding bulls. Ten elephants have been killed in the past 15 months on the Kenya-Tanzania border.
Ivory fever drove Kurtz mad in the Congo a century ago in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." No cure exists yet. That is why Richard Leakey, upon taking the helm of Kenya's wildlife department, burned that country's huge ivory stockpile.
He then labored many years to eliminate the corruption wrought by the ivory trade, nailing not only the poachers but park wardens and high government officials. The trade ban offered him the environment for success.
It also soured the American and European taste for ivory, and contrary to southern African predictions, the ivory market crashed. But the yen for ivory continues in Asia.
Today poachers with AK-47s take out entire elephant families, including nursing mothers. Data from the Amboseli study show that no infant calves survive a mother's death; only 30 percent orphaned at ages 2 to 5 and 50 percent orphaned at ages 5 to 10 make it. The biggest profits come from rare bull elephants that forage in threesomes - the eldest as mentor. In Botswana, I watched a 40-year-old bull demonstrate for a teenager and a 20-something how to fell a 30-foot palm tree, then use his 6,000 pounds to shred it and expose the delicacy - the heart of palm.
Faye's studies of biological diversity in tropical forests have shown that some forest flora rely on elephants. First, by pulling down trees and lianas, elephants break the dense canopy so sun can reach new seedlings. Second, flora survival in the rain forest requires wide dispersal. When the Johnny Appleseed of the rain forest eats a plant, it then walks 20 miles and drops the undigested seeds on the ground, fertilized and sprouting.
A 'keystone' animal
Like it or not, we've become custodians of other species, and we must measure the value of each as a piece of the ecological puzzle. Biologist Douglas Chadwick calls the elephant a "keystone" animal because it strongly shapes its habitat, and when gone, other species become extinct not long after. Mr. Chadwick questions whether, without elephants, wild areas can continue operating as they have for millions of years.
CITES tried quotas and control schemes eight times before, and tens of thousands of elephants died. All this for ivory, whose primary uses are as Japanese signature seals, jewelry, and knickknacks. Until ivory ceases to be a desirable commodity, illegal trade will flourish. The US must support a zero quota in ivory. CITES must not be manipulated to protect endangered trade over endangered wildlife.
* Betty Spence is a former educator who has worked and lived in Botswana and South Africa.