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Africa | Southern Africa
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New study counters bid to commercialise ivory

Elephant in Kenya's Samburu National Reserve:
«People would be ashamed to be part of the crisis.»

© Julian Blanc/IUCN/afrol News
afrol News, 28 February
- While Southern African countries are seeking to re-legalise the ivory trade due to an abundance of elephants, researchers have conducted a study that reveals the source of illegal ivory in Africa. While elephants may face protection in the south of Africa, other African nations fear the legalisation of the tusk trade.

African countries are divided over banning or controlling international ivory trading, but need to reach a common position if they are to ensure the survival of the continent's elephants, a UN panel that has studied the situation said today.

In particular Southern African countries have been doing heavy lobbying for a re-legalisation of the ivory trade during the last years as elephant populations are more than sound in their region. The strongly multiplying giant is even threatening local environments. But other African regions still have not achieved sustainable elephant herds and fear that legalisation of the ivory trade may cause increased illegal hunting on their threatened elephant populations.

According to David Morgan from the agency deciding on international trade on animals and animal products, CITES, African countries have filed three ivory proposals before the body's conference this June in The Hague, where 169 nations will debate new bans and quotas for trade in endangered species. "This demonstrates the divisions that still exist between African countries on the way to go forward for the conservation of African elephants," Mr Morgan said.

"As long as Africa is divided, the chances of success are not so high. We really need an African position on elephants," the CITES specialist said.

Additionally, a new scientific report is complicating the lobbying of South Africa and Botswana - the main nations behind the ivory trade re-legalisation proposal. US researchers have conducted a study that reveals the source of illegal ivory in Africa, revealing that a legalisation of the trade would endanger elephants even more.

According to their report, DNA test would help conservationists and authorities in the continent to protect elephants from being killed and turn their tusks to ivory. An international convention banning ivory trade had been effected since 1989 - but this does not prevent its trade in the black market.

According to a report by Samuel Wasser of the Washington University's Centre for Conservation Biology, the seizure of over six tonnes of ivory in Singapore in June 2002 confirmed that elephants have been unprecedently slaughtered for ivory purposes.

A 20-foot container packed with 6.5 tons of contraband ivory from Malawi to the Far East thus was intercepted. "It was the second-largest seizure of contraband ivory on record, the largest since the 1989 ban took effect, and represented ivory from 3,000 to 6,500 poached elephants," Mr Wasser noted, adding that the assumptions by the authorities that ivory had been collected from many different places, especially from forest elephants, proved to be incorrect.

Researchers took samples of the confiscated ivory and compared them with DNA tests collected from elephants. It was then that they discovered that the seized tusks from the black market emanated from Africa's broad savannahs in Zambia and not in forests.

Shortly before the seizure, Mr Wasser argued, Zambia had petitioned for permission to sell its ivory stockpiles internationally - stockpiles that were supposed to have existed before the ban. But only 135 elephants were known to have been killed illegally in Zambia in the previous 10 years, a figure far below the single seizure in 2002.

"If people really realised what is happening they would be ashamed to be part of the crisis," he said. "We don't want to spend our time catching criminals, we want to stop the crime from happening. That is the most effective enforcement you can do."

Mr Wasser and his team believed that their research result would cause law enforcement agents to substantially narrow the areas of origin and the trade routes being investigated.

In recent, the price of ivory has shot up, resulting to poachers to kill more elephants to sell their tusks. Until the Washington study, authorities in most parts of Africa are not sure of illegal hunting of elephants in their countries.

Mr Wasser argued that the continued loss of elephants will have serious consequences.

"Elephants are majestic animals and are not trivial to the ecosystem. They are a keystone species and taking them out significantly alters the habitat," he said in a presented paper. "It has ripple effects on lots of different species."

He said in August 2006, more than 23,000 kilograms of the contraband ivory have been seized by the authorities. Mr Wasser assumed that "customs agents typically detect only about 10 percent of contraband, so the actual amount of poached ivory probably is closer to 234,000 kilograms. That means more than 23,000 elephants, or about 5 percent of Africa's total population, likely were killed for that amount of ivory."

China's mushrooming economy is a major force driving the black-market ivory trade, escalating prices and attracting organised crime, Mr Wasser said. "In 1989 a kilogram of high-quality ivory was sold for US$ 100 on the black market. That rose to US$ 200 in 2004 but by last year had ballooned to US$ 750 per kilogram."

"If it really is organised crime that's driving this, then the only hope we have of stopping it is to stop the ivory at the source, to not let it into the international market. Because once it is in the international market, the trade is very hard to stop," Mr Wasser said.

An earlier report by the wildlife trade monitoring network traffic and environmentalist group, WWF - which revealed several networks of illegal trade in Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria - confirms the problem of tracing the real source of the ivory trade. The ivory probably stemmed from elephant poaching in Congo Kinshasa (DRC), Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Gabon.

Undercover investigators from the two groups had visited 9 cities in Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal to map the trade. They found more than 4000 kg of ivory on public display - a volume that represents the ivory of more than 760 elephants.

According to recent data from the world nature conservation organisation IUCN, however, said there may not be any more than 543 elephants in these three countries. The investigation therefore seems to have discovered an international trade in ivory, which is illegal.

These studies show just a snapshot of the problem, said Tom Milliken, director of TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa and co-author of the WWF report. "When we factor in all of the uncontrolled manufacturing, buying and selling over a year, these numbers climb to frightening dimensions," he added. The ivory was not DNA tested.

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