Yesterday, 7.2 metric tons of elephant tusks were auctioned off to ivory buyers from China and Japan, bringing in a total of $1.1 million for the seller, the Namibian government. The controversial sale was the first of four auctions that will be carried out over the next few weeks in a program approved by CITES, the international watchdog group that monitors trade in endangered species. The sales are intended to let southern African countries dispose of their ivory stockpiles, and CITES hopes that releasing legal ivory onto the market will decrease the demand for poached ivory.
However, some conservation groups worry that the sale will have the opposite effect, and may allow black market ivory dealers to label their goods as products from the legal auction. Says a spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Michael Wamithi: “By permitting legal trade in ivory, we are only encouraging the laundering of stocks by poachers, thereby increasing illegal hunting activities…. The situation is very clear: More ivory in the market place equals many more dead elephants’’ [The New York Times blog].
The international ivory trade has been banned since 1989 in an attempt to protect crashing elephant populations; since then, CITES has permitted only two rounds of auctions (a 1999 sale, and the current one). In total, 108 metric tons of elephant tusks will be sold in the auctions in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The tusks come from roughly 10,000 elephants that have died of natural causes or were culled in population management programs. CITES says it agreed to the sales only in African countries where elephant populations are judged to be healthy and growing. More than 312,000 elephants are living in the four nations. Under CITES rules, profits from the sales must go towards elephant conservation projects, or towards programmes aimed at developing communities who live around elephant ranges [AFP].
Experts disagree on how releasing legal ivory into the market affects poaching. Data collected by the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic shows that seizures of illegal ivory fell in the years following the last legal sale in 1999 [BBC News]. But some groups worry that including China in the auction may change the equation, as the Chinese government has previously been seen as lax in its efforts to combat smuggling; Chinese buyers were therefore not allowed to take part in the 1999 sale. But CITES says that China has cracked down on black market ivory sales since then, and also says that the agency will monitor trade in China and Japan to make sure companies are not mixing illegally sourced ivory with these legal shipments [BBC News].
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