SANTIAGO, Chile, November 12, 2002 (ENS) - Parties to the treaty that regulates international wildlife trade today made an exception to a 13 year long global ban on commercial trade in elephant ivory, voting to allow one time ivory sales by Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. The 160 member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) made its approvals conditional on a strict regime for controlling the controversial sales.
The ivory is held in existing legal stockpiles that have been collected as elephants died of natural causes or as a result of government regulated problem animal control. Conservationists fear that the poachers and smugglers will take advantage of the approved legal ivory trade to mask their illegal activities.
CITES delegates turned down ivory trade proposals from Zimbabwe and Zambia. They opposed a proposal from Zimbabwe that would have allowed a one-off ivory stockpile sale, and a proposal that would have down-listed Zambia's elephant population from Appendix I, under which trade is prohibited, to Appendix II, under which trade could be allowed.
The five countries that proposed renewed ivory trading argued that, because of their successful conservation efforts, elephant populations have recovered to the point where they are beginning to overcrowd their habitat and need to be culled, especially to protect local communities from human-elephant conflicts. Sale of ivory stockpiles could finance better management of their herds and promote the species' long term conservation, they maintained.
Other African nations, led by Kenya and joined by India, disagreed. They argued that sales of any kind would revive the ivory industry and lead to the widespread poaching that devastated herds in the 1980s before the current ivory trade ban took effect in 1989. Elephants have more economic value in attracting tourists to Africa than they do in providing ivory for sale, these nations contend.
"While richer countries can often afford to promote conservation through strict protection," said Wijnstekers, "many poorer nations must do so in ways that benefit local communities and bring in much-needed cash for conservation. In the African context, a conservation strategy based on sustainable use may offer elephants the best possible long-term future. The key is finding solutions that benefit states that rely on tourism as well as those that seek income from elephant products."
The votes by member countries on proposals by Botswana and Namibia were cast by secret ballot and passed 59-26 and 65-28, with 21 and 22 countries abstaining, respectively.
After strong lobbying by WWF and other conservation groups, Botswana and Namibia withdrew their requests to institute annual sales of ivory in addition to the one-time sales of stockpiled ivory.
South Africa's pro-trade proposal was approved by the CITES delegates by a vote of 65 in favor, 24 against, with 25 abstentions, achieving the required two-thirds vote. South Africa will now be allowed, beginning as soon as May 2004, to carry out a single elephant ivory stockpile sale.
Conservation groups warned that the message that CITES sends the world, with the full support of the United States delegation, is not in the best interest of elephant conservation.
“When the word goes out that proposals from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa were accepted, the headlines will read, 'Ivory Trade Approved,' said Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation and chairman of the Species Survival Network, an international coalition of 65 nongovernmental organizations committed to the strict enforcement of the CITES treaty.
“Poachers, smugglers, and profiteers are not interested in the fine print that outlines the conditions attached to future ivory sales, nor the 18-month delay before any sale can take place. These unscrupulous individuals will take today’s votes as the green light to ply their deadly trade. I fear greatly for the future of elephants in Africa and Asia,” Travers warned.
Today´s agreement requires any future one-off sales to be supervised through a rigorous control system.
The sales cannot occur before May 2004 to provide time for baseline data to be gathered on population and poaching levels and for the CITES Secretariat to verify and register the existing elephant population numbers.
Trade can be suspended if the CITES Standing Committee finds either an exporting or an importing country to be in non-compliance with its regulations.
Trade can be stopped if there is any evidence that trade is leading to increased poaching in other regions of Africa. "Two monitoring systems that have been established to track the illegal killing of elephants and illegal sales of ivory will be critical to ensuring that countries relying on tourism are not harmed by ivory sales from countries that also rely on trade," said the secretariat.
But environmental groups fear these safeguards will not be sufficient to protect elephants from poachers. "Until CITES addresses the illegal trade head-on, legal sales could fuel demand for illicit ivory and jeopardize vulnerable elephant populations in both Africa and Asia," said Ginette Hemley, vice president for species conservation at WWF.
Some conservationists blame the United States for supporting the ivory trade for the first time in CITES history. The United States voted in favor of allowing the international commercial trade in stockpiled ivory from Namibia and South Africa today, while voting against an identically worded proposal by Botswana. Botswana´s proposal was passed despite the U.S. "no" vote.
Botswana originally proposed a one-time sale of ivory in 2004 followed by annual sales according to a quota. The United States offered an amendment to the proposal to eliminate the annual sales and postpone the one-time sale until at least 2005.
"The United States is committed to the conservation of African and Asian elephants," said Assistant Secretary of the Interior Craig Manson, one of the two leaders of the U.S. delegation. "We believe this alternative proposal recognizes the progress south African nations have made in conserving and restoring their elephant populations while ensuring that any trade will not lead to an increase in poaching of elephants."
Under the African Elephant Conservation Act the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided millions of dollars in cost-share grants to nations in Africa and Southern and Southeast Asia, the U.S. delegation pointed out today.
The United States provided grants to Botswana last year to conduct research on elephants, manage populations, and reduce elephant-human conflict, the U.S. CITES delegation said today. In Kenya, grants helped fund purchase of equipment for game rangers to combat poaching, including support for aircraft that are vitally important to locating and tracking poachers. In Gabon, grants provided start up funds for Langoue National Park, which provides important habitat for elephants.
But Teresa Telecky, Ph.D., director of the Wildlife Trade Program for The Humane Society of the United States said, "We condemn the United States for today's disappointing departure from its past position on this issue."
"The United States has an unregulated, legal ivory trade that allows the import of thousands of ivory objects each year, worth $165 million annually," said Dr. Telecky. "It also seizes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of ivory objects every year that are being funneled into the legal trade."
Since the last CITES meeting, in 2000, over 50 metric tons of elephant ivory has been confiscated and over 1,600 African elephants have been found poached.
Jason Bell, the International Fund for Animal Welfare's regional director for Southern Africa called the decisions today an elephant "death warrant."
"That CITES has allowed South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia to trade in 60,000 kilograms of ivory is a death warrant for thousands of elephants across Africa and Asia, which will now be targeted by well-organized poaching gangs to feed the increased demand that will be created for illegal ivory," Bell warnedd.
"Parties to CITES that voted in favor of these stockpile sales must now step forward and assume the financial responsibilities that these sales will create for range states in Central and West Africa, and countries such as Kenya, who will need to increase their anti-poaching and enforcement capacities to battle the increased demand that will be created for illegal ivory from poached elephants."