Conservationists oppose ivory sale in Tanzania

Published: 23 March 2010 at 16:35

International team of scientists urge CITES to maintain the protection status of elephants in Tanzania and Zambia

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A group of 27 scientists and conservation experts from around the world have teamed up to try to save more elephants from potential slaughter due to changes in ivory trading. The experts are arguing against requests from Tanzania and Zambia to lower the protection status of their elephants allowing them to conduct one-time sales of stockpiled ivory. 

The team, including Jody Gunn of Anglia Ruskin University’s  Animal and Environmental Research Group (AERG), a part of the Department of Life Sciences at Cambridge, has had a paper published (12 March) in Science saying that the sale could lead to increased slaughter of elephants for their ivory throughout Africa.  The petitions to lower the protection status of their elephants comes at a time when evidence shows that both Zambia and Tanzania are among the largest sources of, and transit countries for, Africa’s illegal ivory.

Illegal killing of elephants is on the rise, driven by growing markets for ivory in the Far East, particularly China.  DNA forensics work undertaken by members of the team shows that much of the seized ivory originates from Tanzania and Zambia, the two countries petitioning the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  While China and Japan, the two countries approved by CITES to import the ivory, are among the most heavily implicated in the illegal ivory trade.

The debate about whether the two countries should be permitted to down-list their populations has been the subject of a debate this week (22 March) by CITES in Qatar. Last week the Secretariat released their recommendations to CITES, proposing that Tanzania’s proposal be declined, but that Zambia’s be approved. Jody Gunn says:

"The Secretariat made recommendations which would stimulate the global ivory market, through one off sales of Zambia’s stockpiled ivory. This could have been the worst news for Tanzania if its recommendations were accepted, as Tanzania was also recognised as not being able to manage their illegal trade."

This week saw CITES reject both Tanzania and Zambia’s proposals, however, the issue could still come to the table again if either country chooses to re-open the case on Thursday, the final day of the meeting. Reflecting on this announcement, Jody Gunn commented:

"While I am optimistically hopeful that this has been a significant win for the elephant populations of Africa, the decision will not be considered final until the close of the meeting on Thursday."

The Science report argues that legal sales introduce uncertainty of supply into the marketplace and create demand on the black-market. It claims that the new market for ivory threatens to reverse the recovery of African elephants observed since the ban on the international ivory trade was put in place twenty years ago.

The report suggests three ways for CITES to revise its decision-making process about when species are listed and how they are monitored. First CITES must acknowledge that species roles in ecosystems are not equal across species and should consider the influence that mega herbivores, like elephants, have in shaping and maintaining landscapes across Africa. Second, controls on exploitation must be verified by independent programmes with no political or economic agenda.  Finally, CITES must consider a country’s record in controlling illegal trade more seriously when evaluating petitions.

One argument proposed for the idea of the one-time sale is that large species such as elephants can be exploited sustainably and the profits set aside to provide funds for future conservation. The scientists claim that while a proportionately small sum (1% of annual tourism revenue) would be generated from Tanzania’s sale, tourism income could suffer if poaching increases.

AERG postgraduate member Jody Gunn has completed a PhD thesis on elephants in and around Mikumi National Park, Southern Tanzania.  The Anglia Ruskin University project is an on-going, long term research project focusing on the behaviour and ecology of elephants and baboons.

For further information, contact Guy Norton or Dawn Hawkins on 0845 196 2282 or email