Sale of elephant-tusk stockpiles may encourage poaching, experts worry
Elephant experts from around the world are joining a University of Washington scientist in calling for a moratorium on legal ivory sales, to protect elephants from being slaughtered for their tusks.
Seattle Times science reporter
With elephant populations down to about 35 percent of historic levels, biologists are calling for a complete moratorium on ivory sales.
Growing numbers of elephants are being slaughtered for their tusks, said Sam Wasser, director of the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology and lead author of a commentary published Thursday in the journal Science.
Wasser and his 26 co-authors — including biologists from Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — argue that sales of stockpiled ivory from elephants that died naturally could boost the black-market trade and lead to more poaching.
"It's just creating an opportunity for illegal ivory to be smuggled into the legal market," Wasser said.
The African nations of Zambia and Tanzania are petitioning an international regulatory body for permission to sell more than 110 tons of stockpiled tusks worth nearly $20 million. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will vote on those requests during a meeting that starts Saturday in Doha, Qatar.
Wasser uses DNA analysis to identify the sources of seized black-market ivory. Those studies show Zambia and Tanzania are hotbeds of elephant poaching. "They are the two countries that pop up most often as sources of smuggled ivory."
John Frederick Walker, author of "Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants," agrees Zambia and Tanzania may not be protecting elephant populations vigorously enough to earn permission for stockpile sales.
But Walker argues ivory sales in countries where elephant populations are healthy may be the best way to ensure the species' survival. "You do not have to kill elephants to get their ivory," he said. "Elephants die ... and they leave behind these gleaming tusks."
Money from legal ivory sales can supplement funding for park rangers and provide assistance for villagers who live in elephant country, but see little benefit from the lucrative tourist trade.
A tightly controlled but predictable supply of guilt-free ivory could also undercut the black market, Walker believes.
But Wasser and his colleagues say so many elephant populations are in peril that now is not the time to take a risk by reopening legal ivory sales.
"Elephants need a reprieve," he said. "We need to get things back under control, then decide on trade later."
Law enforcement and record-keeping must be bolstered before it will be possible to create a well-regulated trade in legal ivory, Wasser added. Zambia, for example, claims poachers killed only 135 elephants in the past decade. But genetic analysis of a single cache of black-market ivory revealed tusks from at least 1,000 animals — and records seized in the raid pointed to 19 previous shipments that escaped law enforcement.
All sales of elephant ivory were banned in 1989. At the same time, African nations stepped up game patrols and poaching plummeted.
But money for enforcement programs soon evaporated. Growing demand for ivory in Japan and China drove prices up, and poaching levels have been climbing for much of the past decade, Wasser said.
CITES has twice allowed sales of stockpiled ivory, in 1999 and 2008.
Poaching initially dropped after each legal sale but crept up within a few years. Scientists estimate 8 to 10 percent of elephants are now slaughtered annually.
Today, ivory sells on the black market for about $900 a pound — up from $50 in 2002, Wasser said. In 2006, law-enforcement officials seized nearly 30,000 tons of illegal ivory, most of it apparently trafficked by organized crime rings. Some shipments were packed with cocaine or raw diamonds.
Wasser's studies have uncovered a black market for ivory in the United States, concentrated in the Chinatown neighborhoods of New York and San Francisco. Growing numbers of Asian tourists now buy small amounts of ivory in African markets, then sell it at home for a tenfold profit, he said.
Kenya is one of the few African nations that strongly opposes any ivory sales. Most other countries see their stockpiles as badly-needed sources of cash, Walker pointed out.
"I believe Africans have the right to benefit from the natural resources they have without being told, in effect, how to manage their wildlife," he said. "I don't think the United States would be interested in Nigeria's opinion on what we should be doing about grizzly bears in Yellowstone."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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