DOHA, Qatar — Conservationists scored a rare victory at a U.N. wildlife meeting Monday when governments voted to reject contentious proposals by Tanzania and Zambia to weaken the 21-year-old ban on ivory sales over concerns it would further contribute to poaching.
The heated debate over the proposed sale of the two countries’ ivory stocks divided Africa, as it has in years past, at the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Nearly two dozen central and east African countries came out against the proposals on the grounds that they would hurt already declining African elephant populations. Southern African countries, in contrast, argued the two nations should be rewarded for the conservation efforts undertaken and should have to right to manage their herds as they see fit.
“People born in 100 years, they should be able to see an elephant,” said Kenya’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife Noah Wekesa, whose country opposed the sales and had called at one point for a 20-year moratorium on such auctions.
“We should not lose this heritage that we have,” he said. “We have a duty to make sure we increase the numbers of elephants.”
The ivory stocks the two nations wanted to sell come from natural deaths or controlled culling of problem animals.
Key to the defeat of the two proposals were concerns among many delegates and environmentalist that the sales would further exacerbate a poaching problem that some say is at its highest levels since the 1989 ivory ban.
Environmentalists welcomed the decision, which came on the same day that countries agreed on a conservation plan for African and Asian rhinos. Delegates agreed to step up enforcement against rhino poaching, which is at a 15-year high, and work to slow the demand in Asia mostly from traditional medicine markets.
Until the rhino and elephant votes, environmentalists had achieved little at CITES. A proposal to ban the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna was defeated along with a plan to regulate the coral trade and conserve sharks.
“After the way the week went for marine species, today’s decisions were much more positive, particularly the decision on rhinos, which was really a boost for conservation and morale,” said Carlos Drew, head of the WWF delegation.
On the elephant proposals, Tanzania was asking to sell almost 200,000 pounds (90,000 kilograms) of ivory that would have generated as much as $20 million. It noted in its proposal that its elephant population has risen from about 55,000 in 1989 to almost 137,000, according to a 2007 study.
Zambia wanted to sell 48,000 pounds (21,700 kilograms) of ivory worth between $4 million and $8 million. It withdrew a request for the ivory sale and offered a compromise to allow a regulated trade in elephant parts excluding ivory — a first step toward future tusk sales.
The two countries argued that their elephant populations had reached the point where they were trampling crops and killing too many people. They also said preventing them from selling the stocks would increase anger toward the beasts, which are seen increasingly as pests by affected communities.
“Tanzania is committed to conservation of its wildlife, including elephants,” said Shamsa Selengia Mwangunga, the country’s minister of natural resources and tourism. “But should this meeting fail to consider this proposal, we run the risk of enhancing hostility against elephants by our local community especially where human-elephant conflicts are prevalent. More elephants would be killed.”
Zambia’s Minister of Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources Catherine Namugala accused activists and other delegates of misrepresenting the poaching situation in her country and spreading rumours that it would spend the money raised from sales on election campaigns.
She also complained that her country was struggling to protect elephants even as it fails to provide its citizens with basic needs and should be able to sell its ivory just as its neighbours “were selling their gold and oil.”
“We can’t justify failure to take a child to school because we are using resources to conserve elephants,” Namugala said. “I appeal to allow Zambia to utilize the natural resources given to us by God.”
Opponents of the proposals said there was evidence to back claims that such sales worsen poaching.
For example, the poaching of elephants has risen sevenfold in Kenya since a one-time ivory sale was approved in 2007 by CITES for four African countries, Kenyan wildlife officials have said. Last year 271 Kenyan elephants were killed by poachers, compared with 37 in 2007.
TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring group, tracks ivory seizures and found that poaching and smuggling to markets mostly in Asia has risen steadily since 2004. They blame weak law enforcement in Africa and growing demand for ivory products like chopsticks and ivory jewelry mostly in China, Thailand and other Asian countries.
The price of ivory on the black market has risen from about $200 per kilogram in 2004 to as much as $1,500 now.
African elephants have seen their numbers drop in the past 40 years by more than half to 600,000 mostly due to poaching. The global ban briefly halted their slide. But conservationists said that poaching, especially in central Africa, now leads to the loss of as many as 60,000 elephants each year. Without intervention, the elephants could be nearly extinct by 2020.
Samuel K. Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, said there was a clear link between one-off sales and the rise in poaching. He said the sales revive dormant markets by sending consumers the message that it is OK in general to once again buy ivory and make it difficult to differentiate between legal and illegal products.
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