Elephants win reprieve

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Five African nations and India reached a consensus on Monday on the controversial issue of trade in elephant ivory after managing to convince Kenya that no sales would take place until an effective monitoring system was put into effect to prevent poaching.

Five African nations and India reached a consensus on Monday on the controversial issue of trade in elephant ivory after managing to convince Kenya that no sales would take place until an effective monitoring system was put into effect to prevent poaching.

The consensus agreement will permit South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe to trade in live elephants and their hides.

The agreement was reached shortly before debate on the contentious issue was to have begun at a conference on international trade in endangered species.

"We welcome this as a consensus decision. We are pleased that they recognize it is premature to trade in ivory because the monitoring systems are not yet in place to detect any increase in poaching," said Ginette Hemley of the World Wildlife Fund.

The vote that would have followed pitted Kenya and India, who wanted all trade in ivory, hide and live animals banned, against the four southern African nations, who wanted to be able to conduct limited and controlled sales of ivory.

Karen Steuer, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the consensus was good for Africans and elephants. She the IFAW will provide assistance to countries with elephant populations living outside protected areas and reserves to build up their ability to protect the animals from poachers.

At the 10th conference of the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1997, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana obtained the right to a one-off sale of stockpiled ivory which Kenya claimed had given the impression to poachers that trade had resumed on a broad scale.

"Ultimately the responsibility of elephant conservation rests with the elephant range states," said James Martin-Jones, an elephant expert with the WWF. "This is a major step forward."

The four southern African nations had argued that selling ivory from culled animals and those that died natural deaths would pay for the upkeep of the large herds in the region.

But Kenya, whose elephant herd was decimated by poaching in the 1980s after game hunting was banned, said that despite the 1997 CITES agreement, no effective system had been put in place to monitor the effects of poaching. It has taken Kenya a decade to raise its elephant population to 29,000, small by comparison with the 110,000-strong herd in Botswana.

The sale of elephant hide was agreed to because it takes much longer for poachers to skin a dead elephant than it does from them to simply hack off the elephant's tusks.

Nehemiah Rotich, the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, said the proliferation of small arms from conflicts in neighboring countries makes it difficult to curb poaching of Kenya's elephants.

"Kenya has quite often being reported to be weak in terms of conservation," Rotich told reporters after the consensus was announced. "Let me make it clear, the Kenya Wildlife service is a very strong organization in terms of enforcement."

A report by a CITES committee released earlier Monday said the one-off sale of southern African ivory had been a success. But Paula Kahumbu of the Kenya Wildlife Service, speaking for the Kenyan delegation, charged that the report was based on inadequate data.

Botswana's head of delegation Garyland Kombani said the monitoring system developed by CITES has to be operational by October 2001.

"Keeping the ivory trade door open is very important to us. We decided not to ask for a quota until the next CITES meeting," he said, adding that earning money from ivory sales and ploughing it back into elephant conservation was a more valid approach than monitoring.

A statement from the U.N. Enviroment Program, which is hosting the conference that ends Thursday, said African elephant range states will continue discussions among themselves to seek a continent-wide strategy on elephant conservation.

Rotich said the issue of the ivory trade is guaranteed to loom large at the next CITES conference and that despite the consensus, it was clear the southern African states would want to begin trading in ivory two years from now.

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