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New Risk Seen for Africa's Elephant Herds

Five nations hope to relax ivory ban. Foes say the move would increase poaching.

October 30, 2002|Davan Maharaj | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — Rangers at Kenya's Tsavo East National Park recently stumbled upon a macabre scene: a family of 10 elephants lying in large pools of their crimson blood.

Some corpses were upturned; others were frozen on their knees as if they had died begging. Their faces were hacked away so that the poachers who killed them could extract every inch of their tusks.

A similar slaughter unfolded last month at Niassa National Park in Mozambique, where helicopter patrol pilot Phil Matthews discovered 20 slain elephants in four days. Witnessing the dead pachyderms with missing tusks, Matthews said, he was struck by a thought: "Someone must be stockpiling ivory knowing that it's going to be legal soon."

Five southern African countries have been lobbying vigorously to relax the international ban on ivory sales. This weekend, wildlife authorities from 150 countries will gather in Chile to decide whether to permit those five nations to sell their stockpiles and open a permanent trade in ivory for the first time in 12 years. Many conservationists say the decision could determine the ability of Earth's largest land mammal to survive.

Wildlife experts who support the ban point to a recent spike in poaching as an indication of what will happen if the trade is reopened. In Kenya alone, poachers have killed 70 elephants this year, compared with 54 in 2001, according to wildlife officials. Some hunters have been armed with assault weapons, and one even had a rocket-propelled grenade.

"Lifting the ivory ban will be bad news for elephants," said Paula Kahumbu, a top official with the Kenya Wildlife Service. "Elephants are far from being safe, and if ivory sales are allowed, there is the possibility that elephants could be wiped out in some countries."

The recent killings, Kahumbu and other officials say, are a reminder of the rampant poaching of the 1970s and '80s that halved Africa's elephant population, from 1.3 million to about 625,000.

Ivory largely went out of vogue in 1990 after 150 countries belonging to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species effectively banned trading in elephant products.

Since then, the elephant herds in some African countries have swelled. Botswana now boasts 120,000 elephants, up from 51,000 in 1987. South Africa has about 13,000 -- nearly 5,000 more than in 1987.

In some countries, culling is necessary to keep the herds at manageable, healthy levels. Some African countries allow big-game hunters to participate but charge up to $15,000 for the experience.

South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia want the ban to be partially lifted so they can sell about 90 tons of ivory -- taken from culled elephants and those that died naturally -- to eager buyers in Japan for about $9 million. A similar, one-time sale in 1999 saw 50 tons sold to Japan for $5 million.

But perhaps more significant, those five nations also want permission to sell ivory on an ongoing basis -- a total of 13 tons a year.

South African authorities say they have virtually eradicated poaching at famed Kruger National Park. They have collected 30 tons of ivory and 152 tons of elephant hides, and money from any sale of those items would be used to buy more parkland and relocate elephants to other national parks, said Moshibudi Rampedi, director of South Africa's Department of Tourism and Environmental Affairs.

"We've managed our elephants well," she said. "Why should we be penalized if others haven't done the same?"

But wildlife officials in India and Kenya, as well as other countries in East and West Africa, fear that if the trade reopens, poachers will target the elephant populations and stretch the already inadequate wildlife patrols.

Esmond Martin, who monitors the illegal trade in ivory for several conservation groups, said he fears that a new legal trade could stimulate demand for ivory products and drive up the price -- providing poachers with greater incentives.

"If the price goes up, more people will go into killing elephants," said Martin, who recently completed an extensive study on the ivory trade in Asia. "In many of these countries, there is no alternative income. What does a Sierra Leonean or a Liberian or a Somali have for alternative employment? Almost nothing. So the price goes up, and people switch over to the ivory business."

The illegal killing of elephants and other wildlife has other, not-so-obvious consequences, Martin said.

"Poaching encourages massive government corruption, because poachers need to bribe customs and government officials to move the ivory," he said.

In countries such as Kenya and India, where wildlife tourism brings in hundreds of millions of dollars, poaching could have a detrimental effect on the economy by scaring away tourists. And confrontations between law enforcement officials and poachers can be deadly: In the late 1980s and early '90s, authorities killed at least 165 Zambian poachers who were hunting elephants and rhinoceroses in the Zambezi Valley.

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