Battle over ivory sales flares up once more is set to to lift ban Nations set for fresh Elephant poaching on the rise again

A new bid to profit from elephants has split Africa, reports Nicholas Schoon

The scourge of elephant poaching has returned to Kenya. The government says 46 have been slaughtered in the first five months of this year, compared to 19 in the whole of 1996.

Why? Because, claims Kenya, a resumption in the African elephant ivory trade is on the agenda in Harare, Zimbabwe, to- morrow at the 10th conference of countries participating in Cites, the treaty regulating the international trade in endangered species. "The mere anticipation of reopening the trade is enough to fuel the poaching industry," says a Kenyan spokesman. In fact the chances are that any resumption will be rejected when the 136 nations vote at the end of the two-week meeting.

Three African states which want to be allowed to trade ivory with Japan - Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana - are unlikely to get the two-thirds majority needed, because of staunch opposition from conservation groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and key governments such as the US. But the issue cannot be suppressed. This will be the third attempt since the ban in international ivory trading came into force eight years ago, and no doubt there will be a fourth.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, roughly three-quarters of African elephants were wiped out, mainly due to ivory poaching. Some 70,000 were being killed each year. Attempts by Cites to reduce the slaughter by setting strictly limited ivory quotas failed, hence the 1989 ban.

To some extent it has worked - poaching has declined and the free market price appears to have fallen substantially. A group of six southern African nations, including South Africa, entered formal "reservations" against the ban, which meant they were legally exempt from it. They have, nonetheless, desisted from trading openly to avoid pariah status and because it was hard to find any country which would legally import their ivory.

These six countries have the biggest elephant populations and, by and large, the animals are doing well there. The three now pressing to resume ivory trading say their combined population has risen 60 per cent in 13 years to 155,000. They argue they need to control elephant numbers because they are increasingly coming into conflict with the rising human population.

It is a turf war. Crops have been encroaching on the tracts of land that wandering elephants need, so they trample and eat crops and not infrequently kill people; elephants are the principal cause of death by wildlife in Kenya. Several fatalities have occurred when farmers come back to their land after an evening's drinking and recklessly attempt to scare the beasts away.

The three countries want to start selling off the ivory stockpiles they have built up from culled elephants and those that have died naturally. All three propose to sell a strictly limited quantity only to Japan, where it is used in the centuries-old tradition of carving hanco seals. The WWF estimates there are more than 500 tonnes of ivory in African stockpiles, worth tens of millions of pounds. For small, impoverished countries these are huge sums.

If trade were to resume, some argue, it would give elephants value as a long-term, sustainable resource. Governments and local communities would wish to conserve elephants and reap the benefits of a careful culling programme. But conservationists and other countries say any legal trade is bound to start increasing demand and therefore to boost the illegal trade, which has never been erased.

An expert panel set up by Cites concluded there were problems with all three countries, but especially Zimbabwe. A parliamentary inquiry had found high-level corruption in the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the panel did not believe Japan had adequate measures to control the trade at its end.

Kenya is leading the fight among African nations against the proposals. Its elephant population has begun to recover after five-sixths were lost in two decades. It points out that it has burnt nearly 30 tonnes of stockpiled ivory, and urges that a consortium of wealthy countries buys the stockpiles of other nations - and burns those too.

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