Image credit: marfis75/Flickr
Tanzania and Zambia, conservationists fear, may receive special permission from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to auction off a combined total of 112 tonnes of stockpiled ivory.
Though such auctions are strictly monitored by international organizations and the revenue earned is required to be used for elephant conservation projects, many believe that the sale could drive market demand for ivory and encourage poaching activity.
The Case for Ivory Auctions
Though CITES placed an international ban on the sale of ivory in 1989, members agreed to allow Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to auction a stockpile of 50 tonnes to Japan in 1999. Another auction, this time opened to Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, was allowed in 2007, during which a combined total of 108 tonnes of ivory were sold to China and Japan.
The revenue from these sales, participating countries argue, is essential for maintaining conservation efforts that protect the elephants. Erasmus Tarimo, the director of wildlife at Tanzania's Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, explained:
You put a ban on anything but you don't protect it, the poachers will go on...for us, this sale will give us the means to stop the poaching.
In its announcement of the 2007 auction, CITES commented that it was "an African solution to an African problem," pointing out that funding conservation initiatives in rich countries was relatively simple, but for many of the countries where elephant conservation is most essential, the resources needed are simply not available.
A Dangerous Game
Opponents of ivory auctions claim that such sales fuel global demand, perpetuating the markets—both legal and illegal—that put elephants in danger from poaching. Poachers, they point out, need reassurance that a market exists before they break the law. Auctions—even if they are highly regulated—that produce millions of dollars in revenue prove that this market is thriving.
Though it has been difficult to show that ivory auctions are followed by a spike in poaching, it has been equally difficult to verify that the money they raise has actually been applied towards conservation efforts. Both Namibia and Botswana were threatened from exclusion of the 2007 auction after their failure to verify how the revenue from the 1999 sale was used.
Furthermore, nations are required to establish that their elephant populations are healthy and growing before they can participate in the auctions. In this most recent case, the numbers reported by both Tanzania and Zambia are widely considered to be inaccurate by scientists.
The science is not being done in the way that science should be done, which is publication and peer review.
The motion to open an auction on Tanazania and Zambia's ivory stockpiles is currently tabled at CITES, but conservationists worry that the long debate over elephant management—which has been fraught—may convince policy makers to allow the concession.
Letting Politics Rule over Science
This is, conservationists argue, an example of politics ruling over science. Samuel Wasser, head of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle and the lead author of a recently published paper in Science opposing the proposed ivory auction, commented that:
Politics seems to be driving the debate...CITES has become so caught up in this debate of sustainable versus unsustainable use that the argument is blinding decisions that should be based on science.
Sustainable or not, it is clear that putting ivory back on the market—no matter how tightly regulated its sale may be—sends a dangerous message to poachers, would-be consumers, and cash-strapped governments for whom elephant conservation is but one of an uncountable number of urgent priorities.
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