SANTIAGO, Chile, November 11, 2002 (ENS) - Members of the international nongovernmental coalition Species Survival Network were "shocked" to hear the United States offer a plan today that would allow for a renewed international commercial trade in stockpiled elephant ivory within the next three years.
The U.S. amendment language came without warning at the 12th conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) during debate over a proposal from Botswana to allow the trade in 20 metric tons of ivory and also allow for an annual quota for ivory sales.
The U.S. language was announced moments before the European Union announced its opposition to the ivory trade at this time.
The newly articulated U.S. position comes as a surprise because on the second day of the CITES conference, November 4, Judge Manson said the United States "remains concerned regarding any resumption in this trade because of potential effects on elephant populations and ongoing monitoring efforts."
Judge Manson is assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks in the U.S. Department of the Interior. A former California Superior Court judge, he previously served as general counsel for the California Department of Fish and Game.
Judge Manson admitted to receiving 12,000 emails objecting to any relaxation in the ivory trade ban from concerned citizens in the last 48 hours.
"The United States continues to be strongly committed to African elephant conservation," he said on November 4. "Regardless of the decision reached by the 160 nations that are part of CITES, ivory imports to the United States will continue to be prohibited under both the Endangered Species Act and the African Elephant Conservation Act."
Botswana is one of five African countries that has proposed at this CITES meeting to resume the international ivory trade. The other countries are South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia. Together, all five countries have proposed to export 87 metric tons of stockpiled ivory, the tusks of about 11,000 elephants.
The countries also asked permission to export a total of 13 metric tons of ivory on an annual basis.
Each proposal is being considered separately at the CITES meeting. Botswana, the first to be considered, is seeking to export 20 metric tons of ivory at first and then four metric tons annually thereafter.
"Why on earth did the U.S. not share its language with the EU?" asked Will Travers, president of the Species Survival Network and CEO of the Born Free Foundation. He warns that the U.S. decision may undermine the European Unionīs strong position against the ivory trade.
"An agreement could have been worked out that pleased all relevant Parties if the U.S. had not acted unilaterally. The EU clearly stated that the ivory trade should not resume before the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES in 2005 has agreed to this trade. The U.S. must incorporate this timing in its amendment language before it is voted upon tomorrow," Travers demanded.
Elephant conservationists fear that restarting the legal ivory would act as a mask for an illegal trade based on poached elephants that is already thriving.
Poaching has wiped out over 3,600 elephants in the last two years and customs officials around the world have intercepted at least 50 metric tons of illegal ivory in the same period, warns Susie Watts who chairs the Species Survival Network's Elephant Working Group.
African countries have agreed by consensus to the re-opening of ivory trade under strict regulations. The agreement was reached at a late October meeting of 24 of the 37 African elephant range states, that is the countries inhabited by elephants.
Kenya has entered a formal reservation to the African agreement on ivory trade announced at the African Elephant Range States Dialogue, questioning the process by which the compromise was achieved, and the role of the CITES Secretariat in leading the negotiations
Kenya Wildlife Service Director Joseph Kioko objects to the renewed ivory trade because, he says, previous ivory quota systems devised by CITES failed to protect elephants because enormous and growing markets in the East had the capacity to consume more ivory than Africa could legally supply, resulting in enormous volumes of illegal ivory trafficking.
Under Appendix II, which permits trade under strict regulations, even with an ivory quota system, African elephants were predicted to decline to extinction within 10 years. Between 1979 and 1989, the African elephant population declined by 53 percent, Kioko points out.
By 1989, it was estimated that 90 percent of ivory in trade came from poached elephants. The 1989 CITES ivory trade ban is working, says Kioko, as evidenced by the fact that in the 10 years after the ban, the continental African elephant population was no longer in decline.
Many of the causes of the failure of the Appendix II listing and ivory quota system are still a threat to elephant populations today, Kioko warns. "These include poor regulations, corruption, access to arms, poor enforcement, no monitoring, and the existence of numerous loopholes."
Delegates to the CITES conference must vote on the elephant ivory trade issue in plenary session before the conference closes November 15.