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African countries' proposal to allow one-time sale of elephant ivory stirs controversy

March 12, 2010 |  8:42 pm

Elephant

TSAVO EAST NATIONAL PARK, Kenya — Tracking the wounded elephant to its deathbed was easy for the ranger. Hit by a poison arrow, the huge mammal could only drag its hind leg, creating a wide gash across the bush.

Poachers' footprints were all around the kill, but the hunters did not have time to remove the valuable ivory tusks before Mohamed Kamanya's team of armed rangers arrived. Instead, the emotional task fell to the rangers, who cut off the tusks so they could not be sold.

Beginning this weekend, the international community will debate proposals from Tanzania and Zambia to allow a one-time sale of ivory to clear out stockpiles. Kenyan officials are warning that if sales are approved in neighboring countries, elephant poaching will soar.

"We totally believe that any experiments to allow partial lifting of [the] international ban in ivory trade stimulates elephant poaching and leads to ivory laundering," the Kenyan Wildlife Service's Patrick Omandi said. "Indeed there has been an increase in poaching across the entire continent, with some countries losing their entire population."

Poaching of elephants has risen seven-fold in Kenya since a one-time ivory sale was approved in 2007 by CITES -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species -- for four African countries, the wildlife officials say. Last year 271 Kenyan elephants were killed by poachers, compared with 37 in 2007, Omandi said.

Tribesmen have lived among wildlife for centuries in Tsavo East, a huge expanse of wilderness where some 6,000 elephants live. But park officials say those locals are increasingly turning to poaching. An average set of tusks can net $2,000 or more locally -- a huge sum to an impoverished rural family in an area where seasonal rains have failed the last five years, ruining crops and spreading hunger.

Kenyan officials are particularly angered that Tanzania wants to sell its ivory stocks. Kenya and Tanzania share a long border where parks like Kenya's Masai Mara and Tanzania's Serengeti National Park intertwine. As Omandi likes to point out, elephants carry no passports, and cross the border freely.

At the CITES meeting in Qatar from March 13 to 25, Tanzania is asking the 175 members to allow it to sell almost 200,000 pounds (90,000 kilograms) of ivory. It noted in its proposal that its elephant population has risen from about 55,000 in 1989 to almost 137,000, according to a 2007 study.

Zambia wants to sell 48,000 pounds (21,700 kilograms) of ivory. Zambia says its elephant population of 27,000 is steadily increasing.

While populations might be healthy in those two countries, Omandi warned that populations elsewhere in Africa are being driven to extinction. Sierra Leone, in northwest Africa, lost its last elephants in December, and Senegal has fewer than 10 left, he said.

In its proposal, Tanzania argues that trade in elephant products is essential to conservation.

"Human-elephant conflicts are growing and the view by the communities is that elephants are a pest. Elephant products such as ivory picked up from the wildlife management areas could increase the value of elephants to those communities and this can only result in the community appreciating elephants more," the proposal says.

Critics of the proposal point to poaching practices that drove down Africa's elephant population from 1.3 million in 1979 to about 600,000 in 1989, when CITES banned the ivory trade, and say that poaching has surged since the 2007 ivory sale approval.

"I believe the risk of the sale is enormous," Samuel Wasser, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, said. "If the current situation continues unabated, poaching is going to continue to rise. This will negatively affect many countries, not just Kenya and Tanzania. Effort needs to be put into stopping poaching, not arguing over whether we should have more sales."

Omandi said African ivory is used to make rubber stamps and necklaces in Asian countries like China and Japan. Some consumers buy the tusks whole.

Though the majority of the ivory trade ends up in Asia, the United States also has an internal ivory market, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. From 1989 to 2007, the number of seizures of illegal ivory made by the service accounted for about 30 percent of all reported seizures in the world.

The U.S. has not yet said whether it will vote to allow the sales. The Fish and Wildlife Service said it is waiting for a ruling from a CITES panel of experts.

In Tsavo East National Park, three-quarters of the 500 park staff are security personnel trained in paramilitary techniques, said Senior Warden Yussuf Adan. Last month, a team of rangers got into a shootout with six poachers, one of whom died of wounds from the exchange, he said.

"We think if the Tanzanians are allowed to sell their ivory stock, even the poachers in Kenya would be motivated," Adan said. "They would know it's easy to kill in Kenya and cross to the other side and sell."

-- Associated Press

Photo: Kenya wildlife ranger Mohamed Kamanya stands in front of a herd of elephants at Kenya's Tsavo East National Park on March 9. Credit: Karel Prinsloo / Associated Press

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