Legal ivory? Idea floated as elephant poaching hits new highs

Ivory

As elephant poaching and ivory smuggling have increased across Africa, a new proposal to allow the sale of ivory from elephants that die naturally or are killed for other reasons has infuriated environmentalists.

The idea comes out of a report commissioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is meeting this week in Geneva. It envisions selling ivory through a central organization such as the De Beers diamond conglomerate, funded through a tax on ivory sales.

“It would not be the aim of the [organization] to promote the killing of elephants for trade in ivory,” the report says. “Elephant populations will inevitably produce ivory through natural mortality” as well as through culling for ecological reasons or because they pose a threat.

Though shooting elephants for ivory has been banned for decades, record hauls of ivory -– more than 53,000 pounds -- were seized last year. Poaching is at the highest level since it was first tracked,  according to a separate report to the international convention.

Much of the ivory is believed to end up in China, where it appears to be funneled into the country's legal trade in ivory. China is experiencing a booming demand from newly affluent citizens. Existing regulations are spottily enforced.

The surge in elephant poaching shows something needs to change, according to the report on ivory sales. “It is clear that current measures are not containing the present upsurge in the illegal trade in ivory,” it says.

Though the report says the proposed sale of ivory is merely a starting point for discussions, it has caused a firestorm. Environmentalists argue ivory sales would simply open the door to more illegal poaching. In the past, legal sales of stockpiled ivory have done nothing to satisfy the demand or stabilize ivory prices, the Environmental Investigation Agency in London said.

“Any more ‘legal’ sales –- or discussion of ‘legal’ sales -– of ivory will further stimulate the ivory market, supporting the perception that international trade has resumed and increasing demand for illegal ivory,” the agency's executive director, Mary Rice, said in a statement.

Though some African countries support a legal market for seized ivory to help them fund conservation, others staunchly oppose it. The West African nation of Gabon set thousands of pounds of confiscated ivory ablaze last month, a vivid act meant to discourage the trade.

Although the idea has already set off debate in Geneva this week, the proposal for the sale of ivory would not come up for a vote until a scheduled meeting next year in Bangkok, Thailand, the Associated Press reported.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Officials inspect confiscated elephant tusks smuggled from Tanzania at the northern port city of Haiphong, Vietnam, on March 6, 2009. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

 
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