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Elephant's Future At Stake In Ivory Trade Debate
By Kieran Murray

NAIROBI, April 7 (Reuters) - The African elephant's future is again at stake in a bitter dispute between nations which want to sell its tusks and others which believe only a total ban on the ivory trade will save it from poachers.

A tragic symbol of a continent ravaged by war and poverty, the elephant was almost wiped out by poachers in the 1980s and has recovered only slowly since the ivory trade was outlawed in 1989.

But the ban was eased to allow "one off" ivory auctions last year by Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, which now want the right to sell more of their stocks.

South Africa has joined them and the four are taking their case to a crucial meeting next week in Nairobi where 150 nations will decide which of the world's endangered species need more protection and which have recovered enough to allow some trade.

The proposed ivory sales have infuriated most conservation groups and both Kenya and India, which depend on healthy elephant herds for tourism revenues, are pushing for a revival of the total ban on the ivory trade.

Kenya says last year's sales, although perfectly legal, sent a message that buying ivory was acceptable again, sparking an explosion of illegal trade and encouraging poachers to kill elephants once again.


"We are already seeing the rise in poaching, the evidence is there," said Nehemiah Rotich, director of the Kenya Wildlife Service. "The elephant could be decimated,"

Kenya says at least 67 of its elephants were killed for their tusks last year, up from less than 15 in previous years.

While the killings do not compare to the carnage of the 1980s, when more than a thousand elephants were slaughtered every week across Africa, Rotich said the situation could quickly spin out of control.

"Knowing what happens once big dollars are offered, it will be a bloody war," he told Reuters.

Looking for diplomatic support, Rotich has toured Europe and the United States in recent months, taking with him graphic images of elephants shot dead and mutilated for their tusks.

Environmentalists say poaching has also soared in Zimbabwe's Zambezi valley although the government, which is pushing for more ivory sales, denies there is a significant problem.


Virtually no one wants a return to the slaughter of the 1980s, when the elephant population plummeted from 1.3 million to 600,000, but the southern African nations say controlled ivory sales could actually help the elephant by allowing greater resources for conservation efforts.

All four countries have healthy elephant populations and play down Kenya's claims of a surge in poaching.

"We are not convinced that the reported increase is significant and, even if it is, that there is a direct link to the auctions. We haven't experienced it," said Pauline Lindeque, an official in Namibia's environment ministry.

"It is frustrating to be seen as promoting the killing of elephants because that is not what we are doing at all. We truly feel this is the best way to protect our elephants," she said.

The 37 African nations with elephant populations were meeting in Nairobi this week in a bid to find compromise ahead of next week's meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

If none can be found, Kenya and the four southern African countries will take their rival proposals to the conference and elephants will dominate the agenda.

"This is the issue that raises the emotions. Elephants are charismatic and when you see them shot and their tusks pulled out, it is distressing," one senior CITES official said. "The whole long-term strategy on ivory is still open."

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