They were called the ivory wars. In the 1980s, at least 700,000 elephants, and possibly as many as 1 million, were slaughtered throughout Africa, killed by hunters and poachers for their ivory tusks, which would be made into jewelry. The substance was so valuable it was known as "white gold," and international organized-crime arose around the trade, adding human carnage to the animal toll. Poachers would often kill baby elephants, even though they possessed tiny tusks, in order to draw out grieving mothers who would be murdered in turn. "The slaughter of elephants on the ground in Africa was just terrible," says Paul Todd, program manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
The ivory wars continued until 1989, when countries at the global Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to ban all trade in elephant ivory. With trade choked off, demand for ivory plummeted; African governments, with Western aid, cracked down on remaining poachers. Elephant populations in Africa began to rebound slowly.
But today the African elephant stands on a precipice once again. The nations of Tanzania and Zambia are petitioning CITES, which begins a major meeting in Doha on March 13, to "downlist" the conservation status of elephants so that they can sell stockpiled ivory on the open market ivory they say comes from elephants that have died naturally or was seized from illegal poachers. But conservationists argue that over the past decade illegal poaching has risen steadily, and if the elephant is downlisted in some African nations it could have a devastating impact for the species as a whole. Nothing less than another ivory war could be at stake. "This is an animal that has been under siege for centuries," says Todd. "But now it's faced with extirpation."
Although the elephant-trade ban has been in place since 1989, real protection for the threatened species ended in 1997. That's when pro-ivory trade forces pushed through a decision in CITES that allowed a one-time exception to the ban on sales of stockpiled ivory. The idea was that by allowing a few legal sales, pressure for ivory goods would diminish, mostly in richer Asian nations, and therefore reduce the demand for poaching. If poaching was an illegal drug, stockpile sales were the methadone.
But the treatment didn't work. From 1997 to 2007, following those stockpile sales, poaching and seizures of illegal ivory began to rise. In Tanzania alone, the percentage of elephant mortality attributed to poaching rose from 22% in 2003 to 62% in 2009. The wholesale price of high-quality ivory went from $200 per kilogram to $850 per kilogram in 2007, and then doubled again by 2009. As economies boomed in Asia the destination for much of the ivory trade, at least initially demand for white gold continued to rise. And ivory-trade regulation in the U.S. is confusing and full of holes ivory was even being traded on eBay until the Internet vendor shut down the sale of it recently. "The data shows that the U.S. is the second largest retail ivory market in the world," says Todd. "It's hard for consumers to know what is legal and what's not."
That will remain the case as long as stockpile sales remain, flooding the market with ivory and weakening what was once a powerful moral prohibition against the trade. It doesn't help that in 2007 CITES gave South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe permission to sell 110 tons of stockpiled ivory to China and Japan. The E.U. allowed that sale on the condition that there would be a nine-year moratorium on future stockpile sales, but CITES applied that ban only to those four countries leaving Tanzania and Zambia open to request their own sales. "We keep moving the goalposts," says Steven Broad, the executive director of TRAFFIC International, which monitors wildlife trade.
In an article in the March 11 edition of Science, an assortment of wildlife experts from around world including several African nations argue that science simply does not support any additional ivory sales. Over the past 30 years African elephants have declined to about 35% of their original numbers, and the population today is less than 500,000. Allowing further sales in Zambia and Tanzania already considered the center of the illegal elephant trade would likely end up increasing poaching, especially in neighboring nations like Zimbabwe where enforcement is rapidly falling apart. If poaching and trade continue at the current rate, African elephants could disappear from the majority of their range by 2020. "The decisions made at CITES will decide these elephants," says Todd. "It's too late for too many of them."
The good news is that at the upcoming CITES summit, nations will have the chance to once more put a stop to the elephant trade. CITES is the rare international treaty with real teeth countries that decide to defy it can face serious trade sanctions. As the experts in this week's Science put it, "no 'one-off' ivory sales should be approved." They have the power to prevent another and bloodier ivory war.