Elephant ivory, ivory auction, ivory sale
Francois Poolman/AP
Ivory is guarded in an auction room in Windhoek, Namibia, Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2008. (AP)

African Ivory Auctions Draw Criticism

October 30, 2008 10:24 AM
by Denis Cummings
UN-approved ivory sales in four African countries will raise millions of dollars for elephant conservation, yet many conservationists say the auctions encourage poaching.

Namibia Holds First Legal Ivory Auction in a Decade

The United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) decided to allow four ivory auctions this year, the first legal auctions since 1999. Namibia held the first of them on Tuesday, Oct. 28, selling 7.2 tons of ivory for $1.18 million to buyers in Japan in China. Botswana will hold its auction Oct. 31, and South Africa and Zimbabwe will hold auctions next week.

All the ivory sold was legally obtained, mostly from naturally deceased elephants. The proceeds of the auctions will go to the Game Product Trust Fund, an elephant conservation group. The group, which received about $5 million in the 1999 auctions, has helped to curb poaching and increase the elephant population in southern Africa.

Buyers from only two countries—Japan and China—are allowed in the auctions. CITES has determined that these are the only two countries sufficiently committed to stopping illegal ivory exportation.

The auctions have been heavily criticized by conservationists and animal rights activists, who argue that the auctions will legitimize the international ivory trade. It has been banned since 1989, but there is still an illegal black market trade, and poachers kill an estimated 20,000 elephants a year.

The sales are going to expose elephants to more poaching in Africa,” said International Fund for Animal Welfare spokesman Michael Wamithi. “So we are afraid that this sale will send a message to the poachers that the ivory trade internationally is now opening up.”

Background: Ivory trade ban and one-off auctions

During the 1980s, rampant poaching caused Africa’s elephant population to drop from 1.2 million to 600,000. Kenya lost an estimated 85 percent of its elephants and nearly lost their entire elephant populations, but southern African countries were able to better control poaching, funding their elephant conservation through the sale of ivory seized from poachers.

In 1989, the countries of CITES agreed to an international ban on the trade of African elephant ivory. The ban has led a significant drop in poaching, though an estimated 20,000 elephants are still killed every year for their ivory and/or meat.

In 1999, CITES allowed Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell their stockpiles of ivory in a one-time auction to fund the newly created Game Product Trust Fund. Only Japanese buyers were allowed, as CITES determined that Japan was the only country with sufficient safeguards in place to prevent re-exportation.

CITES agreed in 2002 to allow Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to hold a second round of auctions, which are being held now. CITES denied requests by Zimbabwe and Zambia, determining that those countries had not done enough to cut down on poaching, though Zimbabwe was later awarded permission.

CITES has also approved China as a prospective buyer, despite suspicions that it is home to a thriving illegal ivory trade. CITES believes that China has instituted sufficient measures to police the ivory trade, but a Chinese government memo leaked earlier this admitted that the government has lost track of 120 tons of ivory in the past 12 years.

Opinion & Analysis: The effect of the auctions

Supporters of the auctions argue that they are needed to fund conservation efforts, which are crucial to protecting elephants and policing the black market. Furthermore, some argue that the restricted and highly controlled auctions help curb black market demand.

“The plain fact is that since the market in ivory was regulated in this way, poaching has decreased,” says an editorial in Saudi paper Arab News. “After the first auction in 1999, there was a marked drop in the criminal slaughter of elephants. It was becoming too difficult for all but the best organized gangs to smuggle the tusks out of Africa. Therefore, the controlled market has proved a success.”

An editorial in the Botswanan newspaper Mmegi argues that the countries should be “rewarded for their exemplary conservation efforts” and be allowed to raise more funds to continue these efforts.

“The fact is that in Botswana, we need funds generated from the sale of ivory not only for conservation but also for the communities that live with the elephants,” it says. “As it is, the Ngami Times reported the death of elephants that have been foraging for food at the Kasane dumpsite. With sufficient funds, a proper and electrified landfill could be constructed for the good of both the wildlife and the community.”

But conservationists argue that the auctions will serve only to encourage poaching. “I predict the price of the ivory will go sky-high, stimulating the already massive black market in illegal ivory,” says Will Travers, chief executive of the U.K.-based charity Born Free Foundation. “So more elephants will die. The incentive to kill elephants and smuggle ivory will be heightened still further.”

Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, admits that there is no statistical evidence showing that the auctions will endanger elephants. He objects to the auctions because of the chance that they will increase ivory demand, however. “A fashion trend of using ivory in Asia will be a danger to most elephants wherever they are.”

An editorial in The Times of London acknowledges “weighty concerns” about the auctions, but says there are enough safeguards to ensure that they benefit the elephant population. “Safeguarding biodiversity is an essential cause,” it says. “But effective management of the environment is crucial to it. Closely monitored sales of ivory pass that test.”

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