With little notice, the international ivory trade has quietly reopened, reawakening a threat to the world's remaining elephant populations.
But the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Nairobi this week should reinstate the ban on ivory trade. And this would require US support to join some African countries in rejecting a narrow approach to conservation.
Between 1979 and 1989, poaching for ivory halved Africa's elephant population from 1.3 million to 609,000. Responding to predicted imminent elephant extinction, the 1989 CITES conference agreed to ban the ivory trade. Elephant poaching almost ceased. Unfortunately, the poverty of the region led some African leaders to seek easy money through the trade. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's blunt formulation of the notion that "in order for a species to stay, it must pay its way" set the tone for the 1997 CITES conference, which reopened the trade in ivory.
The reopening of trade is leading to a renewed ecological crisis. In particular, animals with slow population rates like elephants are susceptible to over-exploitation. This has been evident since 1997 when the CITES secretariat allowed a one-time sale of 50 tons of ivory by Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Namibia to Japan, where consumers demand ivory for ornaments.
As was expected, this caused elephant poaching to increase in Africa and India. In Kenya's Tsavo area, reported elephant poaching was 4.5 times greater in 1999 than the previous nine-year average. Even in Zimbabwe, where elephants are supposedly heavily monitored, recent reports indicate an 11.25 percent mortality in the Zambezi valley floor and Dande safari area - 3 to 8 percent above the natural mortality rates.
In 1997, the CITES secretariat agreed to revoke the ivory trade if renewed trade increased elephant poaching. CITES pledged to implement a monitoring system to study illegal killing of elephants continent-wide - but three years later, it hasn't happened.
Many believe that poor countries need economic incentives to protect their natural resources. The ivory trade, however, serves neither the economic nor environmental interests of Africa's developing economies. It provides employment and revenue only to a few people - most of whom operate illegally. In contrast, wildlife safaris, a major source of foreign currency, present a sustainable form of economic development that can lead to wildlife protection, and to economic and infrastructure growth. To reinstitute a moratorium on ivory trading will require the leaders of the world's poorest countries to overcome the temptation to exploit their natural resources unsustainably. It will demand leadership by industrialized countries, like the US, in supporting an ivory-trade ban as part of its international environmental trade policy.
This week's CITES conference will determine the future of elephant populations in Africa and Asia. Faced with glaring evidence that the ivory trade is neither sustainable nor ultimately beneficial, India and Kenya now seek to ban it again.
But South Africa seeks greater relaxation of the ivory-trade ban. The repercussions are clear: Over-exploitation of already threatened populations could cause Africa's elephants to disappear within 20 to 30 years.
The CITES meeting must honor the 1997 agreement and reinstate a complete ban on ivory trade until adequate monitoring systems are in place. A moratorium on ivory trading will allow time for research on management of elephant populations and accurate identification and verification of ivory.
Wide-scale US campaigns and government support led to an ivory-trade ban in 1989. This time around, the US government has been surprisingly reticent. The US must now push for a renewed ban to help prevent a shortsighted decision that does not best represent Africa's environmental or economic interests.
* Andrew P. Dobson is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University. Renee Kuriyan is a master's degree candidate in public affairs at Princeton.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society