Battle of elephants, clash of tusks 135-nation conference: African countries clash over legalizing ivory trade.


FIVE THOUSAND delegates from 135 countries are in Harare, Zimbabwe, for a 10-day struggle over whether to downgrade the African elephant from Appendix I (threatened with extinction) to Appendix II (may become so) of the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). That is, whether to resume legal trade in tusks, banned in 1989.

Cutting through the rhetoric of conservation, eco-imperialism, JTC self-determination, animal and human rights, this is a battle between two groups of elephant-inhabited African nations having opposite interests.

Before the ban, East African nations could not control poaching, organized crime killed game rangers, tourism plummeted and the elephant nearly vanished from Uganda. Since the ban, elephant populations have grown, experiments in management have improved coexistence of man and beast, murder has abated and tourism has rebounded.

Also, after the ban, elephants have proliferated in southern African countries, trampling farms and villages and killing people. Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe have culled herds. Up to 500 tons of elephant ivory tusks sit in government warehouses awaiting resumption of trade. Japan, where ivory is prized for musical instruments and fine carving, would be the buyer. A potential market awaits in South Korea. Imaginative schemes are proposed for local people regulating and taxing elephant hunts.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is leading the charge to restore the ivory trade, allied with Namibia and Botswana. Kenya leads the preservationists, aided by Tanzania. Zambia deserted the southern Africans for the East African bloc on this issue. In the words of Amusaa Mwanamwambwa, Zambia's tourism minister, lifting the ban would open "the floodgates of senseless elephant slaughter."

CITES has other disputes, including South Africa's request to resume trade in white rhinoceros products and one from Norway and Japan to extend whale hunting. But the clash of elephants dominates. The majority of nations, without direct interests, should worry more about permanently harming East Africa than delaying benefit to southern Africa. The trade should be resumed when safeguards against poaching and illegal trade can be guaranteed.

Pub Date: 6/16/97

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