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ENVIRONMENT-AFRICA: Long Knives Out Over Elephants

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, May 24 2007 (IPS) - Environmentalists are readying themselves for another heated round of debate and horse-trading in the continuing international tussle over the issue of ivory sales.

Contradictory proposals have been put on the table for consideration at the 14th conference of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in The Hague in the Netherlands next month (June 3-15).

A group of countries, led by Kenya, wants CITES to adopt a 20-year moratorium on ivory trade. Opposing the Kenya position, Botswana and Namibia have proposed commercial trade in raw ivory for themselves, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The third proposal is from Botswana which is seeking a once-off sale of 48 tonnes of raw ivory and pieces in its possession.

Organisations such as the US-based International Fund for Animal Welfare support Kenya in its bid, saying that if CITES allowed southern African countries to reopen a legal trade in ivory, it would give poachers the green-light.

African environmentalists have criticised the claims that legalising ivory trade would open the floodgates for poaching. ‘‘Rubbish. Nonsense,” said Gerhard Verdoorn, executive director of Birdlife South Africa and vice president of the African Hunters and Game Conservation Association.

‘‘The elephants in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia are well managed. There is minimal poaching. In East and West Africa there is a lot of poaching going on, due to poor wildlife management. They put South Africa at a disadvantage. We do not want to be punished for the wildlife mismanagement in Kenya,” he said.

The elephant carrying capacity of reserves in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe has been exceeded. ‘‘We need to control the elephants. The meat can be useful for communities around game parks and the skin and hides can be sold with the agreement of CITES,” argued Verdoorn.

IFAW’s Jason Bell-Leaske, regional director for IFAW Southern Africa, told a press conference in Johannesburg yesterday (May 23) that ‘‘the moratorium proposal comes after a serious increase in poaching and illicit ivory trade. Between August 2005 and 2006, more than 23 metric tonnes of illegal ivory were seized around the world”.

The illicit trade includes the 7,000 kg reportedly seized in Zimbabwe in May 2006 and the 3,000 kg seized in Japan in August 2006, he said.

More than 23,000 elephants, or about 5 percent of Africa’s total population, were likely killed for that amount of ivory, wrote Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington’s Centre for Conservation Biology, in the journal ‘‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” in February this year.

Bell-Leaske said ‘‘we support the moratorium proposal and urge all parties to do the same. If efforts are not made to slow down poaching and illicit trade, there is a real chance that elephant populations will suffer the same fate as in the 1980s”.

According to IFAW, the number of elephants in Africa has dropped from 1.3 million in 1979 to 350,000 today. Of these, some 220,000 live in conservation areas across eight southern African countries.

CITES, a global treaty, was drawn up in 1973 to prevent international trade from threatening species with extinction.

In 1997, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were granted a conditional once-off sale of 50 tonnes of ivory, which were exported to Japan two years later. In 2002 CITES again granted a similar sale of 60 tonnes of ivory for Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

IFAW blames demand in the East for fuelling the ivory market as ‘‘the trade is motivated by dramatic increases in the price paid for elephant ivory in the Far East, now up to 850 dollars per kilogramme for quality pieces, up from 200 dollars just two years ago”.

The internet is also playing a role in promoting ivory trade. ‘‘IFAW found more than 9,000 wild animals and animal products for sale on the internet in just one week,” said Kwesi Prah Jr. of IFAW, referring to the 2005 IFAW report, ‘‘Caught in the Web: Wildlife Trade on the Internet”.

Bell-Leaske rejected arguments that overpopulation increases conflict between animals and human beings. ‘‘Elephants have been coming into contact with people for many years. There have been case-specific initiatives to deal with these conflicts which have been successful.

‘‘In some cases it involves fencing people to keep them away from the elephants. This is as simple as putting electric fences around community areas and around areas where people are working and growing crops,” he said.

‘‘In Liwonde National Game Park in Malawi, for example, the communities are growing chilli peppers which elephants do not eat. Chilli peppers are bringing far more revenue to the people because they have more value than maize. It is not a solution for every place. But it is a case-specific solution for Liwonde Park,” Bell-Leaske said.

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