Boost ivory trade monitoring and enforcement before allowing one-off sales: UBC researcher

Recent petitions from several African nations to ‘downlist’ the conservation status of elephants should be denied because no adequate monitoring of the impact of ivory sales or enforcement of the ivory trade exists, according to recommendations published today by an international group of researchers including UBC zoologist Rene Beyers.

In 2008, a one-off sale of stockpiled ivory from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe was brokered by the European Union in exchange for a nine-year moratorium on future sales from those nations. Tanzania and Zambia are currently petitioning the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to downlist the conservation status of their elephants, which would enable the two nations to sell existing stockpiles generated by the legal culling of herds.

“The immediate fear is that down-listing elephants or allowing one-off sales in any African nation will stimulate the market for illegal ivory everywhere, particularly in those countries where law enforcement is inadequate,” says Beyers, a post doctoral fellow with the department of Zoology.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in poaching in Central Africa in recent years. In large areas, including many national parks, elephants have become scarce or disappeared altogether. We’re concerned that as elephant populations become depleted in one region, poaching will spread to areas where populations are still healthy.”

The recommendations were published today in the journal Science. Spearheaded by Samuel Wasser at the University of Washington, the paper includes researchers from the United States, Norway, Kenya, Cameroon, the United Kingdom, Tanzania and Canada.

“None of the countries involved in this petition are adequately controlling their country’s illegal ivory trade,” says Wasser, lead author of the paper and director of the the University of Washington’s Centre for Conservation Biology. “Allowing these sales to occur sets the wrong precedent at the risk of irreparable harm to Africa’s ecosystems.”

The 2008 sale was in part contingent on strengthening the systems that track poaching and seizures of illegal ivory across the continent.

“A program was put in place to monitor the impact of legal ivory sales on the illegal killing of elephants, but hasn’t yet been able to do so, due to major logistical and scientific challenges and a lack of adequate funding,” says Beyers. “But recent analysis of elephant deaths attributed to illegal killing has demonstrated an increase in poached elephants in several countries in Central Africa, but also in Zambia and parts of Tanzania.”

Also noted by the paper’s authors is DNA-based research that indicates that Tanzania and Zambia, the two countries petitioning to downlist their elephants, are among the most significant sources of, and conduits for, illegal ivory in Africa.

The authors estimate proceeds from the sale of stockpiles of ivory held by Tanzania and Zambia would total less that $20 million–approximately one per cent of those nations’ tourism revenue. China and Japan are among the largest importers of illegal ivory.

CITES will decide on the petition during the Convention’s 15th conference of the parties being held in Doha, Qatar, on March 13 to 25, 2005.

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