Tourism-dependent nations value elephants

By Sumana Narayanan
Published: Saturday 15 May 2010

In March the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) rejected petitions by Tanzania and Zambia to sell ivory. Samuel Wasser,an ivory tracker and head of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, told Sumana Narayanan why CITES first banned ivory trade 20 years ago and why the rejection makes sense

On the petitions

There is a history to these petitions. In 1989 cites banned ivory trade for nine years. But in 1997 and 2002, it allowed one-off sales for some African countries. In 2007 cites approved another nine-year ban. But it applied only to those countries allowed to sell ivory in 2002: Namibia, Zambia, Bostwana and South Africa. Zambia and Tanzania then petitioned cites to sell their ivory stockpiles—countries not covered by the ban still need to put in a petition. Tanzania wanted to sell 90 tonnes and Zambia 22 tonnes.

There was a counter petition by 27 countries led by Kenya. It sought a 20-year moratorium on ivory trade. The Tanzanian and Zambian petitions were rejected.

On the reasons for rejection

Elephant population in Selous National Park in Tanzania has declined by 30,000 in the past three years. But Tanzania made the highly unlikely argument that 30,000 animals merely left the largest protected area in Africa. A more likely explanation was that the elephants were poached.

Zambia argued its elephant population was stable if not increasing, whereas data suggested the population declined 80 per cent since 1981. The panel of experts noted that a large portion of their stockpiles was unlabelled—so one could not ascertain the amount of ivory seized from poachers.

On the Kenya-led petition

Twenty-seven countries, led by Kenya, opposed the petitions. They say poaching has escalated in their countries because of ivory sales. These countries depend heavily on tourism and appreciate the importance of elephants to ecology. A lot of the elephants lost are old matriarchs. Initially, male elephants were prime targets because the y had big tusks but when the average size of male tusk began to decline, the poachers turned to females. They are easier to find because they move in groups, while males are solitary animals. The loss of matriarchs has disrupted the social structure of the herds.

But Kenya lowered its demand for a 20-year moratorium and asked for a nine-year ban. The petition was approved. Elephants live long, so the 20-year moratorium proposed by Kenya made sense. But then the Kenyan government realized it could not have garnered support from more than the 27 countries.

On the impact of sale on trade

From 1999, when the first petition to allow ivory sales was cleared, poaching has continuously risen. In 1997, 10,000 kg of illegal ivory was seized, the next year 14,000 kg and in 1999, when the sales took place, 20,000 kg of illegal ivory was seized. The illicit stocks were around 20,000 kg till 2001. Then in 2002, another sale petition was approved ; that year the illegal ivory recovered went up to 34,000 kg. Between 2002 and now, the price of illegal ivory in the wholesale market has gone up fifteenfold. It was US $100 per kg in the 1990s, $200 in 2000 and $1,500 at present.

On the need for scientific assessments

The poaching metric, used by countries like Tanzania to claim that their elephant population is in good health, is calculated as the ratio of carcasses to live elephants. Tanzania claims it has a poaching metric of 2 per cent. This does not fit in with the decline in elephant population in Selous in the past three years. The park’s field staff has also reported a large number of carcasses. Something is clearly amiss.

The metric is based on the idea that the larger the ratio of dead elephants to live elephants, the more the poaching. But in Asian elephants, females do not have tusks. I n fact, many males do not have tusks as well. So the metric should be live males with tusks relative to dead males with tusks. Many countries have no data quality control.

On the buyers

In 1999, Japan was the only legal buyer. In 2008 it was joined by China. The three biggest illegal ivory markets are in China, Japan and Thailand.

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