Africa on horns of dilemma over ivory ban

Vivid sculptures, many life-sized, of Christ crucified are available in Manila, their style marking the Hispanic overlay upon the Philippines. Their expense attests to the new wealth the global economy has brought this Asian country.

"The ivory is from Africa," says Henry Babiera, who has had the sculptures carved in his house in a Manila suburb. "It has to pass through Libya by caravan and then to Malta and Frankfurt." He is blandly indifferent to the widespread Western hostility to the use of ivory. It is not for him to care whether his material comes from those countries in the south of the continent that have had rapidly rising elephant populations for 20 years, from countries such as Mozambique, Sudan and Uganda where the elephant has been under intense threat and remains so, or from Kenya and Tanzania where the elephant devastation of the 1970s and 1980s is beginning to be repaired.

Trade in ivory was banned in 1989 under Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Its controls, and lack of them, will be the subject of an international ministerial meeting in Harare starting today. And the subject, too, of growing controversy.

Those Manila sculptures attest to the fact of continuing traffic in African ivory, which is why free marketeers such as the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) agree with Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia as they press yet again for controlled trade in ivory to be permitted. In common with South Africa (which is not, however, this year giving its support to a return to trade), they have so many elephants that their numbers are regularly culled and their ivory stockpiled. At US$300 a kilo (at pre-ban prices), this seems a waste of resources. A recent IEA paper argued that Cites has to create incentives for commercial exploitation to take place legally, albeit under regulation.

In Harare old arguments are going to resurface. A decade ago, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Department of the Environment supported controlled trade, especially if profits could be tied to community support in areas where elephants cause damage to farms and farmers.

Among the hot topics in Harare is where ought conservation to end and wildlife utilisation begin. The efficiency and effectiveness of the respective governments is also an issue. In some places poaching has increased since the ban, especially where policing has slipped because of budgetary constraints. There may be irritation as Zimbabwe muddies its good conservation case for a resumption of trade by being cavalier in its control of ivory use.

It is probably fair to say that hard evidence is lacking about the effects of the ban, for better or worse. Tony Fitzjohn, of the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, helps run a wildlife reserve in Tanzania, and is close to the government, which opposes the resumption of trade.

Stressing the value of live elephants to the tourism trade, he says, "I know the world is run by trade, not by bunny-huggers. But we're asking for a breather at least until we've got decent elephant populations and sophisticated controls in place."