African countries set for new fight over ivory sales

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Three months from a major international conference on endangered species, African countries are divided over whether a fresh round of ivory sales should be allowed.

With black market sales on the rise again, some nations that consider their elephant populations to be out of danger are arguing stocks of the precious ivory should be sold legally.

Tanzania and Zambia, for example, have asked the CITES (Convention on International Trade in International Species) conference to be held from March 13 to 25 in Doha to authorise them to sell 90 and 22 tonnes of ivory respectively.

This request for an exemption to the 1989 ban on ivory sales, a measure destined to protect the African elephant and rhino, has rekindled a war between countries with varying animal population levels.

If elephants used to roam the African continent in their millions, today they number somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000.

More than half are found in southern Africa with just a few thousand, or sometimes a few hundred, in most western, central and eastern African countries.

In some cases the animals have disappeared all together, for example in Burundi, Gambia, Mauritania or Sierra Leone.

"We don't want to see elephants survive just in one corner of Africa, just in southern Africa," said Patrick Omondi who will head the Kenyan delegation to the Doha talks.

The last CITES conference in the Hague in June 2007 led to confrontations between African countries but they eventually reached a compromise prolonging the moratorium on ivory sales by nine years but allowing Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana to make a one-off sale of 108 tonnes to buyers in China and Japan.

Elephant protection groups argue that this legal sale increased demand for ivory, much sought after throughout Asia for its decorative qualities, boosting the black market.

In Kenya, the number of elephants killed by poachers rose from 47 in 2007 to 214 in 2009.

"If the trend continues this way, we can expect to see the extinction of the elephant in our lifetime," said Patricia Awori of the Pan African Wildlife Conservation Network.

"Our position is that the international community should sustain the ban of selling ivory and rhino horns. By perpetuation of poaching, we will eliminate these animals," Kenyan Wildlife Minister Noah Wekesa told AFP.

Tanzania has a different argument. The authorities estimate that their elephant population rose from 55,000 in 1989 to 137,000 in 2006.

"Elephants are increasingly becoming a nuisance to poor farmers who are progressively becoming opponents to their conservation. The sale of ivory seized or collected from animals that have died a natural death is the best way of making the population aware of the value of the animal," the Tanzanian government said in the file it submitted to CITES.

Tanzania's proposal caused seven African countries, among them Kenya and DRC, to submit a counter amendment asking for the moratorium to be extended to 20 years from nine and calling for a ban on any sales outside southern Africa.

"The illicit trade in ivory, which has been increasing in volume since 2004, moved sharply upward in 2009", according to Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

"The remarkable surge in 2009 reflects a series of large-scale ivory seizure events that suggest an increased involvement of organized crime syndicates in the trade, connecting African source countries with Asian end-use markets," Traffic says.

The quantity of ivory seized has doubled in a year to reach 15 tonnes this year. Its market value is around 750 dollars per kilogramme.

"It is really getting out of control, it has become like the drug trade," Awori said.

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