Elephant economics: battle to ease ivory-trade ban

At her desk overlooking the tumbling thicket of the Nairobi National Park, Paula Kahumbu pauses to signal a park ranger: "We have got to get somebody out there," she orders. "There is an elephant in Tsavo with a shattered limb."

To the stern-faced scientific adviser to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the life of even one elephant is an emergency. And, she says, the 11-year ban on ivory trade - credited with protecting the lives of all the world's elephants - should be upheld at any cost.

But that ban may be lifted, as the 150-nation UN Conference of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) opens here today in Nairobi. Four Southern African countries plan to lobby for the sale of their ivory stockpiles. They argue the sales will fund natural preserves for their elephants. Opponents, though, say ivory sales will lead to a return of poachers - encouraged by a perceived demand.

The battle over loosening restrictions on the ivory trade embodies the emerging tensions in developing countries between saving endangered animals and raising the resources to sustain them.

The outcome, expected after a series of votes on six different proposals during the 10-day conference, could affect the number of elephants living on the planet. It could also change the way that their often troublesome populations are managed in Africa by wildlife officials.

Eleven years ago, at the first CITES conference, the lucrative legal ivory business was voted out of existence. Africa's elephant population had dwindled to half of what it was in 1975. Regulating the sale of ivory - distinguishing tusks taken from elephants that died a natural death from the booty of an illegal slaughter - was deemed impossible. Nothing short of an all-out ban would save the elephant.

A bustling tourism industry, which contributes to half of Kenya's gross domestic product, puts Kenya at the forefront of those who want a stricter ban.

"Kenya lost 80 percent of its elephants" in the years before the ban, Ms. Kahumbu says. Although the number of Kenya's elephants has risen over the past 10 years, poaching still continues in savannas too vast to patrol.

In 1989, Richard Leaky - the then director of KWS - chose to burn $3 million worth of tusks rather than sell to an industry that thrives on poaching. Other countries should follow their example, Kenyan officials argue, until CITES officials can develop another way to protect against the threat of poaching.

But 1,500 miles south, behind the fences of South Africa's Kruger Park, rangers have no trouble keeping an eye on elephants. In fact, the antipoaching campaigns have had such success that the park is overrun. "Kruger has a capacity of 7,000 elephants. We are 2,000 over that in the park," says one South African official, who, nervous about the recent media stir, requested that his name be withheld.

South Africa plans to buy more land to expand the park - and hopes to finance the purchase with the sale of ivory. South Africa's proposal at CITES asks permission to sell a $12 million stockpile of ivory and elephant hides collected over the past 15 years.

And South Africa is not alone. Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana - home to about 147,000 elephants - are applying at CITES for the right to sell a combined total of 24 tons of ivory each year.

"It's not much," says Judith Mashinya, program manager of Africa Resources Trust, an organization that supports community development in Zimbabwe based on sustainable use of natural resources.

Southern Africa's elephants have flourished to "unsustainable" numbers, say wildlife officials in Zimbabwe, ravaging trees and wreaking havoc with villagers' crops. What has not flourished enough are their tourist industries and other government sources of revenue for managing the parks.

"Zimbabwe has a lot of economic problems now," Ms. Mashinya says, "If we are not allowed to sell the ivory ... there will not be sufficient funds toward conservation for the elephants."

Because of the ban, the three countries gave up a huge source of revenue, selling ivory to Asia for traditional carvings and piano keys. The hanko, an ornately carved Japanese signature stamp considered a status symbol, is believed to be the largest use for ivory today.

But Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe saw just how much money could be made off ivory last year when CITES permitted a one-time experimental sale of their stockpiles. Japan - the highest bidder - reportedly paid over $5 million for 54 tons of ivory. The sale was permitted, in part, as a "reward" for successful wildlife management programs.

But the sale was widely protested. "We have been down this road before," says Craig Culp of Greenpeace in Washington. "The minute you remove the outright ban, all control is gone."

Kenya blames an increase in poaching on the renewed trade. (KWS says 67 elephants were killed last year, up from 15 in previous years.) With India, Kenya proposes to stop more sales by moving southern Africa's elephants to the CITES list of most-endangered species.

A bloc of 14 southern African nations vowed to vote for cautious trade. Tusks marked with serial numbers and bulk sales to single buyers will discourage poaching, they say. "No significant increase in the illegal killing of elephants has occurred in the four countries since the experimental trade in ivory," says a February press release.

The United States is expected take a moderate position: that ivory sales should wait until MIKE, the CITES monitoring system that keeps track of elephants and poaching, is fully operational. (The US Fish and Wildlife Service invites the public to give ideas about the issues via e-mail at: r9oma_cites@fws.gov)

Some fear that if successful antipoaching programs bring few financial gains, cash-strapped governments could get frustrated and invest their land and resources elsewhere. Still others fear that decisions will be made based on pressure from well-funded US environmental groups that have supported efforts to develop elephant birth-control pills rather than moves to cull animals in overpopulated parks.

"Why do you propose putting elephants on contraceptives if they are endangered?" asks Mashinya. "This thing is ideologically driven. They just abhor the thought of killing any wildlife."

Whales, great white sharks, and sea turtles will also be high on CITES agenda this week. Kenya also proposes to rescue gorillas from war zones in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each proposal must rally a two-thirds majority at CITES to pass.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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