The decision was taken today at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, in Geneva. It is the third such sale permitted since the ban took effect.
The 33 member CITES Standing Committee, which oversees the implementation of the CITES treaty between the major conferences, has authorized the ivory sale that was agreed in principle in June 2007 for Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Elephant tusks with two rhino horns, front left (Photo courtesy Care for the Wild International)
The Committee also agreed to designate China as an importing country. Japan had already been allowed to import ivory in 2006. Officials of both countries said that they would monitor their domestic markets after purchasing the ivory to detect any increase in illegal sales of the valuable material.
"The Secretariat will closely supervise this sale and evaluate its impact on elephant population levels throughout Africa. We will continue monitoring the Chinese and Japanese domestic trade controls to ensure that unscrupulous traders do not take this opportunity to launder ivory from illegal origin," said CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers.
The four African countries now will hold an auction and agree upon a price for the ivory. In 1999, Japan paid US$5 million for a similar sale of almost 50 metric tonnes of elephant ivory.
All the proceeds of the sale are to be used exclusively for elephant conservation and development programs for the benefit of local communities living side-by-side with elephants.
China has managed to convince the CITES Standing Committee and also conservation groups of its ability to manage regulated sales and tackle any illegal domestic ivory trade.
"China has acted rather successfully against its own illegal domestic ivory market," said Tom Milliken, director of TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa, a wildlife trade monitoring organization associated with the global conservation organization WWF.
"Now China should help other countries do the same, especially in Central Africa where elephant poaching is rampant and Chinese nationals have been implicated in moving ivory out of the region," Milliken said.
The Chinese government could help to improve international co-operation in tackling poaching, smuggling and enforcement issues, and with conservation awareness programs that send out a clear message to Chinese nationals abroad that it is illegal to buy and bring home ivory from West and Central Africa, where it is sometimes sold openly and illegally, he said.
But other conservationists are not convinced. "Unbelievable, na´ve and deadly," said Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation and president of the Species Survival Network, speaking from Geneva. "It was bad enough when Japan was approved as a trading partner more than a year ago but approving China is, in my view, like pouring petrol on an open fire."
Travers says China lacks comprehensive internal law enforcement and trade controls and is on the receiving end of a steady stream of illegal ivory shipments.
He estimates between 20,000 and 25,000 elephants a year are killed by poachers.
In 2004, CITES Parties drew up an action plan for tackling problem ivory markets, but so far, with the exception of Ethiopia, progress has been slow.
"The sight of ivory openly and illegally on sale in many African cities is likely to be a far more powerful encouragement to those contemplating poaching and smuggling, than a strictly controlled one-off sale," said Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of WWF International's Species Programme.
"The only way to end elephant poaching is through an effective clampdown on illegal domestic ivory markets," she said.
"After any ivory sale takes place, CITES monitoring systems will be tracking whether or not it leads to an increase in illegal trade in ivory," said Milliken. "Following the last one-off ivory sale under CITES in 1999, it is encouraging to note that the illicit trade in ivory progressively declined over the next five years. We hope a similar result is achieved this time."
Legal sales of ivory derive from existing stocks gathered from elephants that have died as a result of natural causes or from problem-animal control.
Elephants in Botswana (Photo by Ingo Repinz)
Today, the elephant populations of southern Africa, including those of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, are listed in CITES Appendix II, which allows commercial trade through a permit system. All other elephant populations are listed in Appendix I, which prohibits all imports for commercial purposes.
To conduct the crucial monitoring, TRAFFIC operates the Elephant Trade Information System, ETIS, on behalf of CITES.
ETIS is a comprehensive information system that uses elephant product seizure records from around the world to monitor the illicit trade in ivory and to assess whether any limited resumption of ivory trade would have negative impacts on elephant populations.
To read the latest ETIS report, presented at the last full meeting of CITES in 2007, click here.
The report finds that the five countries most heavily implicated in the illicit trade in ivory are Cameroon, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and Thailand. "All of these countries featured in previous ETIS analyses as countries of concern, but only China demonstrates significant progress in addressing illicit ivory trade issues," the report states.
Before the ban was introduced in 1989, elephant numbers across Africa were estimated to have crashed from approximately 1.3 million in 1980 to 625,000 in 1989. The ban succeeded in halting the decline, but precise population numbers today are not known.
According to the IUCN Species Survival Commission's African Elephant Specialist Group, although elephant populations may at present be stable or increasing in some sub-regions such as Eastern and Southern Africa, the trend is unknown in other regions, and "overall there remains insufficient information to venture a current trend at the continental level."
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