In this small city nestled deep in Congo's dense forest, small boys and a few grown men hawk trinkets near the heavily fortified airport. Business is not brisk. The only buyers here are United Nations soldiers and the occasional aid worker, neither of whom can easily transport home the illegally poached ivory.
"I can't take it home," says one South African soldier sadly, showing off a carved wooden boat rowed by five two-inch tall ivory men that he bought for about $5. "I'll just keep it to decorate my tent until I go."
The Congo is one of handful of nations named in a recent UN-sponsored report as culprits in a growing illegal ivory trade fueled by increasing Asian demand.
The roadside trinkets, say experts, are just the local leakage from an underground smuggling industry responsible for the deaths of thousands of elephants a year.
Representatives from the 160 signatory nations to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) are meeting in Santiago, Chile. They were expected to vote yesterday or today on whether to reopen the trade of ivory, which has been banned since 1989.
Conservationists credit the ivory ban for saving the elephant. They argue that reopening the legal trade when poaching is already on the increase will make it impossible to police which ivory is legitimate and which, like the ivory smuggled out of the Congo, is not.
"The ban on ivory destroyed the market," says Stanley Johnson, a senior researcher for the International Fund for Animal Welfare and a former member of the European Parliament. "Allowing these sales is sending a message that trade in ivory is back."
The five Southern African countries asking for the right to sell 192,000 pounds of stockpiled ivory and a limited annual quota are the success stories of elephant protection. They say their parks are overflowing with elephants Kruger Park, the crown jewel of South Africa's national-park system, has an estimated 10,000 and that selling ivory collected from natural deaths, seized from poachers, and leftover from now-defunct culling programs could raise much-needed funds for their conservation efforts.
Experts estimate the ivory could sell for as much as $45 a pound, raising nearly $9 million for Southern African conservation efforts.
But some conservationists say a previous experiment in reopening the trade failed. In 1997, CITES voted to allow three Southern African countries to sell $5 million of ivory to Japan. Since that sale, seizures of illegal ivory have increased, indicating to many conservationists that the trade in ivory has begun again in earnest.
In 1989, when CITES imposed the ivory ban, more than 40,000 pounds of ivory were seized. By 1997, that figure had dropped to 17,500. But in 1999, two years after CITES agreed to allow the one-time sale by Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, that figure had more than doubled to 36,000.
Although the direct link between the increased poaching and the last CITES-approved sale is still a matter of debate, conservation groups and Kenya, the African country most opposed to reopening sales, say the uncertainty should be enough to stop the sales.
"The data shows that there was an increase of trade after that. Whether it was causal, we don't know," says Susan Lieberman, director of the World Wildlife Fund International's species program and head of WWF's negotiating team in Santiago. "But we believe that considering the uncertainty, the trade needs to continue to be tightly controlled until these new monitoring systems are fully operational."
Ultimately, no one at the CITES meeting really wants to see ivory adorning women's wrists or the keys of grand pianos. Even the countries pushing for lifting the ban say they would be happy to see the ivory stay off the market, but say they need more money for conservation.
"If someone wants to buy our ivory and burn it, we will sell it," says Mavuso Msimang, chief executive of South Africa's national parks and head of the country's negotiating team. "Because believe you me, we need the money."