United Nations Delays Ivory Sale

GENEVA, Switzerland, October 5, 2006 (ENS) - Three African nations will not be allowed to sell some 60 metric tons of ivory, the United Nations announced today. The one-time ivory sale has been postponed because UN environment officials need more information on the status of African elephant populations and on poaching rates.

The international trade of ivory was banned in 1989 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The ban was put in place amid evidence poachers were slaughtering some 75,000 - 100,000 Africa elephants a year during the 1980s.

The World Conservation Union estimates some 400,000 to 600,000 African elephants remain in the wild, down from as many as five million some 70 years ago. Poaching and habitat loss are the key threats to the species - an estimated 10,000 African elephants are killed illegally each year and there is ample evidence of a thriving illegal ivory trade.


In the past eight years, more than 13,000 tusks have been seized by authorities - an amount considered only a tiny fraction of the illicit trade in ivory. (Photo courtesy CITES )

But in 1997 the parties to CITES determined that some southern African elephant populations were healthy and well managed, and permitted Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to make a one-time sale of ivory to Japan. The sales took place in 1999, totaling 50 tons and earning some $5 million.

At the 2002 CITES meeting, negotiators agreed to allow Botswana, Namibia and South Africa to make one time sales of ivory collected from elephants that died of natural causes or as a result of government regulated control of problem elephants. The deal allowed South Africa to sell 30 tons, Botswana to sell 20 tons and Namibia to sell 10 tons.

The countries have said, in accordance with treaty requirements, that they would to use profits from the sales to fund conservation efforts.

But the plan was conditional on the successful development of a system - known as the Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) - to establish current and comprehensive baseline data on elephant poaching and population levels.

At today's meeting of the CITES standing committee, the panel determined that "this condition has not yet been satisfied and the sales may not go forward."

The standing committee, which consists of representatives from 15 nations, will reconsider the plan at its next meeting, set for late May 2007 in Holland.


The elephant is the world's largest landbased mammal and one of the world's most intelligent species. (Photo by Hervé Morand courtesy WWF-Canon)

In a related but separate decision, the committee also decided that Japan has established a sufficiently strong domestic trade control system to be a trading partner allowed to purchase the ivory when sales eventually proceed.

Conservation groups, who fear the legal ivory sale would fuel the illegal poaching of elephant, hailed the decision to postpone the sale.

The decision is good news for "all those involved in elephant conservation around the world, who fight a constant battle to protect elephants from ivory poachers," said Peter Pueschel, program manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

But Pueschel said the standing committee had sent the wrong message by approving Japan as ivory importer.

"We are incredibly concerned that the rubber-stamping of Japan as an importing country - despite all the evidence showing it has problems controlling its current ivory market - questions the credibility of CITES, which should take decisions based on precaution and facts," he said.


In August, 100 elephant carcasses - most missing only their tusks - were found in a national park in southeastern Chad. (Photo by Mike Fay © 2006 National Geographic)

Conservationists have raised questions over the suitability Japan to purchase the stockpiled ivory, after IFAW reports on Japan's domestic control system revealed loopholes that allow illegal ivory to flow into the legal markets.

Much of the Japanese control system is based on voluntary information, IFAW said, and larger private stockpiles exist which are not registered and can be used to launder illegal ivory into the legal system.

"The previous one-off sale of ivory to Japan has spun the ivory markets in Asia out of control." said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for IFAW. "With over 17 tons of ivory under investigation, all of which was confiscated in Asian ports in the past year, it is ludicrous to even contemplate allowing another sale to any country."