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Legal ivory sale will create grey market

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Cape Town – South Africa’s probable application to sell its ivory stockpile in a new “one-off sale” in two years will face increased opposition, from within the country and internationally.

This is apparent from recent developments that include:

  •  A symbolic burning of mock “ivory” at a Cape Town beach to mark International Elephant Day this week.
  •  The destruction of ivory in several countries like the US, France and China in the past year.
  •  The banning of all ivory and rhino horn trade from this month by the US states of New York and New Jersey.
  •  The publication of a peer-reviewed essay in the scientific journal Conservation Biology that calls for a ban on all ivory sales for at least 10 years – including antique ivory.

Also, mounting concern about ivory poaching has been fuelled by confirmation by SA National Parks in May that the first elephant poached for its tusks “in well over 10 years” had been killed in the Kruger National Park, followed by a second last month, also in the northern Pafuri region of the park.

In October 1989, elephants were listed under Appendix 1 of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which effectively banned all trade in this species, including ivory.

Although the animals were “downlisted” to Cites Appendix 2 during a meeting in the Netherlands in July 2007, meaning trade in elephant products was allowed under permit, a moratorium on ivory sales was maintained, pending development of internationally agreed safeguards to prevent poached ivory from being laundered.

Since then, there have been three controlled “one-off” ivory sales by elephant range countries sanctioned by Cites: 49 tons in 1997; another 60 tons in 2006; and a further 108 tons in 2008, where Japan and China were accredited to bid for ivory from South Africa (51.1 tons), Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. A nine-year ban on any further trade came into effect after this sale. In July last year, the cabinet took a firm decision to seek permission from Cites for a further one-off sale of South Africa’s ivory stockpile from natural mortalities and seized contraband, and will apply at the convention’s 17th Conference of Parties in South Africa in 2016. However, the government also said it would listen to all arguments before formulating its final application to Cites.

At a news conference this week to announce the cabinet’s approval of new initiatives to counter rhino poaching, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa reminded journalists of the government’s policy of sustainable utilisation. In theory, this supports the commercial use of all animal products, including ivory and rhino horn.

The government’s view is that the substantial funds generated by ivory sales can be ploughed back into conservation. Also, a legal supply will sharply reduce demand and price for poached ivory, this argument goes. The same applies to rhino horn. But a strong conservation lobby argues that this doesn’t work in practice.

The “Cape Town Burn” event was organised by the Conservation Action Trust, which says elephants may face extinction in the wild and that at least 20 000 of them were killed for their tusks last year. The influx of legal ivory into the main market in China “simply… created a grey market”, said the trust’s Francis Garrard.

“The insatiable demand for ivory… now threatens the very survival of elephants in many countries, with governments, including our own, continuing to accumulate stockpiles of ivory, perpetuating the concept that there is a commercial value for ivory.”

In her essay in Conservation Biology, Elizabeth Bennett, the vice-president for species conservation at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, says the illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007 and that African elephants are facing “the most serious conservation crisis since 1989”.

 john.yeld@inl.co.za

For the article in The Cape Argus click here.

Main Photo: Steve Oberholtzer, USFWS assembling ivory tusks on a tower before crushing. (USFWS Mountain-Prairie)

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