Conservationists and animal rights activists, have raised concern over the decision to approve China, as a buyer for a one-off sale of elephant ivory is likely to increase poaching and illegal ivory trade in Africa.
Against a back-ground where measures to ban the trade had led to increased numbers of elephants in the wild, a break from the previous past of dwindling numbers of this endangered species.
The international trade in elephant ivory was banned by the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), a 173-nation agreement in 1989, but since then trading has been permitted for certain large elephant populations.
The decision comes after it had been ascertained that China had taken measures to control the trade of ivory on the black market sufficiently.
In addition to Japan, China can now bid for the stockpile of 108 tones of ivory held by Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, with the condition that the funds accrued, will be sunk into elephant conservation and related development programs.
“This is going to mean a return to the bad old days where elephants are being shot into extinction,” Allan Thornton, of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the group which provided much of the evidence on which the original ivory ban was based in 1989, told The Guardian UK.
Before the ban, an estimated 100,000 elephants were being killed annually almost causing the extinction of the elephant species.
According to The Independent UK, the ban succeeded in halting a headlong decline of African elephants at the hands of poachers; especially in East African countries such as Kenya.
Elephant numbers across the continent were estimated to have crashed from 1.3 million in 1980 to 625,000 in 1989. Ivory is the hard smooth ivory coloured dentine that makes up most of the tusks of elephants and walruses.
It is used for the manufacture of piano and organ keys, billiard balls, handles, and minor objects of decorative value. In modern industry, ivory is used in the manufacture of electrical appliances, including specialized electrical equipment for airplanes and radar.
Experts at the University of Washington, say that China’s appetite for ivory has led to a boom in illegal poaching, even in countries such as Kenya where it had previously appeared to be under control, warning that the lifting of the ban will raise illegal trade on ivory to record levels.
“It will mean more elephants being poached – it’s as simple as that,” said Michael Wamithi, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“It will be impossible to know which is illegal and which is legal.”
“In a meeting organized in Mombasa this year, by the African Elephant Coalition, the group of 19 African countries present declared their opposition to the Cites pan to allow ivory trade by china. Elephants inhabiting protected areas are relatively safer from illegal poaching.”
Patrick Omondi of Kenya Wildlife Service, one of the most experienced elephant experts in Africa stated, while pressing other pro-ivory trade countries especially from southern Africa to drop their case.
“Of the 2.6 million square kilometres now available for elephants on the continent, only 31 per cent are protected areas.” He said such protected areas in Southern Africa constitute 39 per cent of the elephant range, 22 per cent in East Africa and 39 per cent in West Africa.
In the same meeting, KWS Director, Julius Kipng’etich, urged range states find a common voice on elephant conservation.
“We are building a framework for team-work in the management of biodiversity in Africa. In the long term, we hope to strengthen collaboration between states to the point at which the Coalition’s resolutions can be discussed at the highest level on the continent - the African Union (AU).”
In Africa, much of the elephant decimation has taken place in conflict areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Sudan, Central African Republic and Chad.
According to the Independent UK, Experts have warned that militias such as the Sudanese Janjaweed and rebel groups in Congo have begun to use ivory as a source of income. The slaughter of elephants is now funding the killing of humans.
Sudan has become the main transit point for shipments to China. It is also home to one of the world’s largest centres of illegal ivory trade, in Omdurman.
Maj-Gen Alfred Akwoch, Undersecretary for the Environment and Tourism Ministry of Southern Sudan told the Mombasa meeting that ivory had always been obtained from Southern Sudan illegally; implying that their adversaries were already killing elephants which led to the animals fleeing southwards to become refugees in Uganda.
The slaughtering of fourteen elephants in May 2008, in the Virunga National Park, smuggled through Burundi and Congo is believed to produce, ivory destined for the Chinese black -market.
According to The UK Independent, in a two-week period, four elephants were killed by the FDLR militia, comprising members of the former Rwandan Interahamwe, five by the Congolese military, three by the local Mai-Mai militia, and two by villagers.
Emmanuel de Merode, director of Wildlife Direct, said that the elephants were the victims of international pressures.
“The upsurge in elephant killings in Virunga is part of a widespread slaughter across the Congo Basin and is being driven by developments on the international scene: the liberalization of the ivory trade, being pushed by South Africa, and the increased presence of Chinese operators on the ground, who feed a massive domestic demand for ivory in their home country,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether the CITES decision on China, will worsen elephant poaching in Africa, as widely thought, but whatever the case, the division between range countries in Africa over ivory trade might turn out to be the boon for elephants, in the struggle to conserve this endangered species.