Ivory from 10,000 elephants on sale amid fears of new slaughter

 

Ivory went on sale legally yesterday for the first time in almost a decade when the southern African state of Namibia auctioned seven tonnes of elephant tusks exclusively to Chinese and
Japanese buyers.

The much criticised sale, which raised $1.18 million (£743,000), heralded two weeks of rolling auctions that will put 108 tonnes of ivory – the equivalent of more than 10,000 dead
elephants – under the hammer in a one-off sale to the Far East, where the product is used mainly in traditional medicines and for official seals to stamp formal documents.

Wildlife groups and other African nations fear that the controversial sell-off could breathe life back into the ivory trade, banned in 1989, and trigger a resurgence of the poaching
that devastated Africa’s elephant populations in the 1970s and 1980s.

Julian Newman, campaigns director with the Environmental Investigation Agency, said that the move could once again open the floodgates to poaching, which reduced Africa’s total
elephant population from five million in the 1930s to about 600,000 today. «This [auction], coupled with a lack of sufficient checks in importing countries such as China and
instability in some African range states, could easily drag us back to the dark and bloody days of the 1980s when we were seeing around 200 elephants killed by poachers each
week». Conservationists argue that a lack of proper oversight will allow poachers to mix illegal and legal ivory and slip it past regulators, many of them corrupt.

Michael Wamithi, director of the elephant programme at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: «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. Considering the level of elephant poaching occurring today, allowing this exorbitant amount of ivory to flood
the market is just plain irresponsible».

Four southern African countries – Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where elephant populations are healthy – have been authorised by the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species (CITES) to hold the sales.

The proceeds will go into elephant conservation projects or those aimed at improving conditions for the often extremely impoverished communities around the edges of elephant ranges,
which see little benefit from the money brought in by Western tourists.

The sale – the first since 1999 – was approved in principle in 2002. Last year’s CITES meeting in The Hague agreed that enough precautions had been taken to enable the auction to
go ahead with Japan as the sole buyer. This year, it was agreed that China had taken sufficient action against the illegal trade to be included.

The convention argues that data showed that the 1999 sale did not boost poaching and brought in $5 million to help with managing southern Africa’s growing population of about
312,000 elephants.

Traffic, a wildlife trade watchdog, says it has confidence in the auctions which, after Namibia, will move every three days through Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, which plans to
sell a record 53 tonnes.

David Newton, Traffic’s regional representative in South Africa, said: «As far as we are concerned it is a well-managed process. We are always urging caution and the ivory
trade needs to be very strictly monitored; we are confident the monitoring mechanisms are in place».

William Wijnstekers, the CITES general secretary, will visit all four countries to supervise the sales and meet Chinese and Japanese representatives about monitoring the ivory after the
sale.

Jonathan Clayton

 

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