International sale of elephant ivory begins in southern Africa, amid controversy

Monday, October 27, 2008
Cape Town, South Africa
An elephant ivory auction totaling over 19,800 lb (9,000 kg) will begin tomorrow in Namibia. This is the first time in nearly 10 years that international trade in elephant ivory has been sanctioned by the UN-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The sales will continue over the next two weeks in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, with a grand total of 119 tons (108 tonnes) of ivory up for bidding. This accounts for an estimated 10,000+ dead elephants.

Both China and Japan have been approved as trading partners for this ivory and are known to be among the world’s largest illegal ivory markets. The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW – www.ifaw.org) Elephants Program Director, and former director of Kenya Wildlife Service, Michael Wamithi, has responded to the sales, saying, “Allowing this exorbitant amount of ivory to flood the market, considering the level of elephant poaching occurring today, is just plain irresponsible.”  

IFAW’s 2007 China ivory trade poll report highlighted the low awareness of the ivory control system and also citizens’ unwillingness to comply with this framework. According to the report, among the 14.5 per cent that were actually admitted consumers of ivory, 75.7 per cent would willingly violate the control system in order to obtain ivory at a cheaper price. Much evidence also exists that Japan’s domestic market is out of control.

“Rangers on the front lines in elephant range states continue to lose their lives protecting elephants from poaching,” continued Wamithi. “Developing countries continue to bear the brunt of burgeoning Asian markets. By permitting legal trade in ivory, we are only encouraging the laundering of stocks by poachers, thereby increasing illegal hunting activities. The situation is very clear: more ivory in the marketplace equals many more dead elephants – and rangers.”

One year ago, a suspension of at least nine years on international elephant ivory trade was approved at the 14th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties. This trade ban is set to come into affect after the stockpiles sales are completed.

“This impending moratorium on international ivory trade presents a critical opportunity for the international community to focus time and energy on elephant conservation initiatives,” said Jason Bell-Leask, IFAW’s Southern Africa Regional Office Director. “We need to be vigilant if we want to succeed in maintaining the integrity of elephant populations in Africa and Asia for coming generations. The future of elephants is clearly in our hands at this point.”

The total amounts being auctioned are: Botswana ~44K kg; Namibia ~9K kg; South Africa ~51K kg; and Zimbabwe ~4K kg. Significant amounts of ivory in these stocks have been collected through culling which is itself a controversial means to control elephant populations.

In 1989, CITES Parties listed the African elephant on Appendix I, effectively prohibiting all international trade in elephants and their derivatives, including ivory, but in 1997 this was resanctioned and certain populations were down-listed to Appendix II, allowing  trade with special permissions from CITES. These sales will be the second time in nearly two decades that the international sale in ivory has been authorized since the initial ban.

Just last week, global online auction platform eBay, Inc. announced a ban on all trade in elephant ivory over their Web sites, effective 1 January 2009.  This decision followed a recent investigation by IFAW that revealed the massive scope and scale of the illegal wildlife trade on the Internet.

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