An elephantine dilemma
African sales of stockpiled ivory could boost illegal trade in India too, worry conservationists.
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November 2002, [IPS] - The easing of a United Nations ban on sales of ivory tusks to accommodate southern African countries worries conservationists trying to save the Asian elephant. Lobbying by delegates at the ongoing U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Chile resulted Tuesday in permission for South Africa, Botswana and Namibia to sell off 60 tonnes of stockpiled elephant tusks in 2004. This approach represents what CITES Secretary General Willem Wijnstekers called "an African solution to an African problem" that takes into consideration the continent's need for "sustainable use of elephants" at a time of growing human needs and population.

But conservationists in India, one the last major refuges of the Asian elephant, said the release of the African stockpiles would open up legal loopholes that would allow poachers to supply India's resurgent carving industry. "This is a sad day for the Asian elephant. The connection between illegal poaching of Asian elephants and legal sales of African ivory is much closer than we think," said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). Wright said that although tusks from African elephants are larger and can be used for big carvings, ivory from Asian elephants allow intricate work and are not prone to splitting under the chisel. This attribute, she said, makes Asian ivory particularly attractive to Japanese importers who supply the "hanko" or personal seal industry in that country, which is rated as the world's biggest importer of elephant tusks and products.

Apart from ivory "hankos," the use of which is traditional and still considered a matter of prestige, ivory is used in Japan to make items that call for intricacy, durability and lustre needed for personal jewellery, piano keys and pluckers for the "shamisen" a type of stringed instrument. Wright and other conservationists said Japan, which is seeking to protect its own traditional, ivory-carving industry, had a major hand in the newly eased ban at the CITES conference that began on Nov. 4 and ends Friday. A CITES statement said that permission for the one-off sales of the tusks would be supervised through a ‘'rigorous control system".

Said Tariq Aziz, project officer for the India office of Worldwide Fund for Nature, also known as the World Wildlife Fund, ‘'The only hope for the Asian elephant is to stick to a complete ban and burn off all stockpiles." According to Aziz, one of the many problems with the ‘one-off' sales allowed by CITES is the as yet faulty and manipulation-prone monitoring systems that are supposed to check poaching activities. The one-off sales will be the first lifting of a ban on the sale of African ivory imposed by CITES in 1989. Since the ban on ivory sales, the African elephant population is estimated to have climbed back to an estimated 600,000 from an all-time low of 300,000 in 1998.

Aziz pointed to studies carried out by the Elephant Trade Information System, which was set up by CITES itself, that show that despite the ban the trade in illegal ivory has in fact been going up since 1998. While some of the ivory may originate in stockpiles stashed away before the 1989 CITES ban, there is also a case for poor initiative by local government to check poaching and trading activities within their own borders, Aziz said.

But the biggest argument against any relaxation of the ban is the experience of 1997, when Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were allowed a one-time sale of stockpiled ivory to Japan, resulting in upsurge of poaching and trafficking. That sale brought the countries 5 million dollars in revenues.

Between January 2000 and May 2002, more than 5.9 tonnes of ivory, 2,542 tusks, and 14,648 pieces of ivory have been seized worldwide. These are estimated to have costs 2,000 elephants their lives. What worries conservationists here is the recent revival of the ancient craft of ivory carving in India, which a sure sign that the CITES ban is not working as it should.

"Recent studies and seizures have shown that value-added ivory is available for the asking in selected locations of foreign tourist influx such as southern Kerala, western Rajasthan and eastern Orissa states," said Aziz. Acting on a tip from the WPSI, authorities in Kerala seized four large ivory carvings in May from a trader. One of the pieces weighed over 40 kilograms and measured four feet in length and was believed to have come from three male elephants killed in the forests of South India. Major overland smuggling routes to Japan pass from India through lax customs in Nepal and Bhutan and through the "ivory triangle" formed by China, Hong Kong and Macau.

Said WPSI's Wright: "The trader told our investigators before the raid that he had access to African ivory that is apparently smuggled in through the Kutch, in western Gujarat which borders Pakistan. That suggested to Wright and Aziz the existence of a well-organized network in India of poachers, traders and carvers not only across Indian states but with international links as well. Wright said the WPSI's investigators recently stumbled on a quantity of ivory blanks in Jaipur, ready to be shipped to where craftsmen would turn them into personalized "hankos."

Ranjit Devraj
November 2002

Ranjit Devraj is a correspondent with Inter Press Service, a global news resource faciliating south-south and south-north dialogue on important economic, social, environmental, and other issues. IPS is distributed by Global Information Network

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