Amid Legal Ivory Trade, Illegal Sales Grow

The New  York Times
August 25, 2009
By Pete Browne

The Associated Press
A Kenya Wildlife Service warden stands in a strong room
holding elephant ivory impounded since 1989.

When the United Nations Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species — or CITES — temporarily lifted a ban on sales of ivory last year, the aim was to feed voracious markets in Asia with ivory from existing stockpiles (or from elephants that had died naturally), generating much-needed income for Africa.

Supporters of the move pointed out that a similar relaxation of the rules in the late 1990s did not lead to an increase in poaching, and that proceeds from such sales were at least partly used to improve conservation efforts. Some 50 tons of ivory were sold to Japan at the time, generating $5 million for Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

It’s not working out quite so well this time around.

The recent lifting of the ban was designed to allow Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to market existing ivory stores. But DNA evidence has found that some tusks seized in Asia originate from African countries not taking part in the CITES sales — including Kenya — suggesting that the commodity is being shipped across borders before being exported to Asia.

According to data from the Kenya Wildlife Service, the number of elephants illegally poached in 2008 jumped to 98 from 47 in 2007. This year, 73 poachings have already been recorded.

Some advocates blame the lifting of the ban.

“The correlation between this rise in elephant poaching and ivory seizures and the one-off sale of stockpiles by CITES can no longer be ignored,” said James Isiche from the International Fund for Animal Welfare.


Charles Kariuki of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust — an organization set up in Kenya to rescue injured elephants — agrees. “From conditions on the ground we can tell if elephants are victims of ivory poaching or if they have been involved in land conflicts with man,” he said. “Currently the number of elephants in our care resulting from poaching is very, very high.”

A wildlife trade monitoring organizaiton, Traffic, found tusks on sale in Vietnam for more than $1,800 per kilo, and has identified Bangkok as home to Asia’s largest market in illegal ivory.

Seizures, though, indicate that most raw African ivory is ultimately destined for China, where owning ivory is associated with prosperity, and is traditionally viewed as a status symbol. Richard Leakey, the former chairman of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, said he believed that China’s growing economy and the lifting of the ban on ivory sales have combined to drive increased poaching.

Meanwhile, one ivory trader, who said he only markets tusks obtained before the CITES moratorium and who did not want to give his name for fear of reprisal, believes the ban on ivory sales was not working, and that opening up the market is the answer.

“There are large elephant populations across Africa and many issues with land,” he said. “I don’t condone the killing of elephants, but I think ivory obtained from natural deaths should be made available.”

Tourism is the third largest contributor to Kenya’s economy, and 70 percent of this is derived from its wildlife.


 Original Article