WILDLIFE

Symbolic flames

Kenya lights a fire to help African elephants

ANNE STEACY July 31 1989
WILDLIFE

Symbolic flames

Kenya lights a fire to help African elephants

ANNE STEACY July 31 1989

Symbolic flames

WILDLIFE

Kenya lights a fire to help African elephants

On top of a rise on the scorched Athi Plains of Nairobi National Park last week, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi lit a bonfire clearly designed to inflame public sentiment around the world. Surrounded by diplomats, government officials, farmers and journalists, Moi ignited gasoline-drenched wood stacked under a mound of

more than 2,500 elephant tusks confiscated from poachers. The pyre was a symbolic plea to help save the stately African elephant, which could face extinction within the next 20 years. Kenya’s goal is to halt an illegal ivory trade that has helped to reduce the African elephant population to 700,000 from 1.5 million a decade ago. As flames from the 12 tons of bleached tusks—worth an estimated $3.6 million on the international market—soared 40 feet into the sky, Moi declared, “I now call upon the people of the world to join us in Kenya by eliminating the trade in elephant ivory once and for all.” But the world may not be ready to heed Moi’s plea. Kenya, along with the neighboring east African nations of Tanzania and Somalia,

will seek an international ban on ivory sales at an October meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The 1975 convention agreement, which 102 governments have signed, is aimed at saving threatened plant and animal species by recommending the banning of—or at least the restriction of—commercial

trading. In support of Kenya’s appeal, Canada, the United States, the 12-nation European Community and Japan have already proposed legislation that severely restricts ivory imports. As well, some Canadian chain stores, including Henry Birks and Sons Ltd., now refuse to sell jewelry or other goods made of ivory.

But African nations do not agree about the best way to preserve elephant populations. At a meeting in the southern African nation of Botswana earlier this month, representatives from seven other African nations—including South Africa and Zimbabwe—threatened to apply for an exemption from the proposed ban, or withdraw from the convention pact.

Conservationists estimate that more than 80 per cent of the ivory sold at about $100 a pound on world markets—for use in jewelry, piano keys, billiard balls, ornamental sculptures and popular Asian “chops,” or signature stamps— comes from up to 300 elephants a day, many of which are shot illegally in African countries and left to rot in the sun, their tusks hacked off with chain saws by a sophisticated network of poachers. At present, the convention classifies the African elephant as a species protected with restrictions. If convention members decide at their October meeting to put the elephant on the list of species that are endangered through trade, then the organization’s officials will no longer sanction the killing of any African elephants. (Asian elephants are already classified as an endangered species that cannot be traded.)

Officials of such African countries as South Africa and Botswana, which oppose such a ban, argue that they have instituted conservation measures to control—and, indeed, increase— their elephant populations, and that they need the revenues that the ivory trade generates. In Zimbabwe, where private ownership of game has been allowed since 1974, ranchers say that their herds are flourishing. Zimbabwean officials say that they view elephants as a renewable commercial resource, guarding them from poachers and then allowing big-game hunters to kill them for a fee—a trophy licence costs $3,000 in Zimbabwe—or permitting them to be culled under government supervision. Zimbabwean officials estimate that ivory sales from an annual cull of about 2,000 elephants in that country earns up to $3.5 million in badly needed foreign revenue.

For their part, conservationists and government officials argue that it is the middlemen— the traders, carvers and retailers—who earn the greatest profits. Conservationists also contend that the majority of the middlemen operate in such countries as Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. As a result, they insist that if the seven holdout nations refuse to participate in the ban, poaching will continue—and the illegally obtained ivory will simply be exported through countries where the ivory trade is still legal or flourishing underground. Declared wildlife expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton: “These countries will act as a pump through which the whole of Africa’s ivory will drain.”

In another development, Moi, who has ordered that poachers be shot on sight, said that he plans to have his officials bum 270 confiscated rhinoceros horns soon. Although Kenya signed the convention and banned trade in rhino horns in 1975, poaching during the past 20 years has reduced its rhinoceros population to only 500 from 20,000. The reason: rhino horns are coveted in the Middle East for medicinal purposes, in Asia for use as an aphrodisiac and in some parts of the Arabian peninsula for ceremonial dagger handles. Because of the widespread demand for its horns, the future of the rhinoceros may be even bleaker than that of the imperilled elephant.

SHARON BEHN

ANNE STEACY with SHARON BEHN in Nairobi