Published online 11 March 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.46

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Scientists against proposed ivory auction

Researchers want science to take precedence over politics in decisions on elephants.

ElephantsResearchers are pushing for science to be given a bigger role in the debate over ivory sales.DigitalStock

Top elephant scientists are up in arms over the prospect of elephant-poaching hot spots in Africa being allowed to sell off their ivory stockpiles.

The proposals by Tanzania and Zambia to sell a combined 112 tonnes of ivory worth an estimated US$17.5 million will be tabled during the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Doha, Qatar, on 13–25 March. Despite the two nations' poor track records in elephant protection, conservationists are worried that the proposals could be accepted because of an ongoing CITES debate over how best to manage elephant populations.

Some countries favour auctions because they bring in revenue, which is needed to sustain protection programmes. Others worry that one-off sales risk stimulating the illegal ivory trade, and ignore the reality of the burgeoning demand from the middle classes in Asia for ivory products such as seals and ornamental tusks.

In a paper published today in Science1, lead author Samuel Wasser, head of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle, and more than 20 other elephant researchers argue for a bigger role for science in CITES decisions about elephant conservation.

"Politics seems to be driving the debate," says Wasser. "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."

Part of the problem, Wasser says, is that the CITES review process doesn't give the scientific community enough time to review the data and weigh in on decisions. Some countries' elephant-monitoring data is not publicly available until the CITES meetings are in session, "when it is too late", says Wasser. "When you are dealing with a trade worth tens of billions of dollars and with major consequences on the environment, it's crazy that the decisions are giving so little weight to science," he says.

Two-decade ban

If approved, the sale will be the third ivory auction since the trade was banned 20 years ago.

In 2007, at the most recent CITES meeting in the Hague, the southern African nations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe were granted permission to sell a combined 108 tonnes of ivory to buyers in China and Japan. Countries also agreed that, after the auction, there would be a nine-year moratorium on ivory sales — in part to give researchers time to study the link between one-off sales and the illegal trade.

“You put a ban on anything but you don't protect it, the poachers will go on.”

Erasmus Tarimo
Tanzania Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism

However, late in the meeting, a footnote was added to the agreement stipulating that the moratorium would apply only to the countries that were granted permission to sell off their ivory stocks. Now Tanzania and Zambia are petitioning CITES to auction off their own stockpiles, forcing the conservation community back into debate.

In their petitions, Zambia and Tanzania both state that their elephant populations are healthy and growing. They say that downgrading the endangered status of their elephants to allow the sale of ivory, hides and hunting trophies, as well as the trade in live animals, will actually help to protect elephant populations by providing authorities in the countries with cash to put appropriate measures in place.

"You put a ban on anything but you don't protect it, the poachers will go on," says Erasmus Tarimo, the director of wildlife at Tanzania's Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. "For us, this sale will give us the means to stop the poaching."

Count question

But scientists are wary about the elephant numbers being quoted by Tanzania and Zambia. Wasser says DNA analyses of major ivory seizures have shown that several tonnes of ivory intercepted in Asia during the past few years originated in the two countries2.

"We have consistently found that Zambia and Tanzania are the biggest and worst poachers in Africa," says Wasser, who led the DNA research.

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Several other scientists working in the region have misgivings about the accuracy of Tanzania's latest elephant census last year. "The science is not being done in the way that science should be done, which is publication and peer review," says Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, a non-profit organization that is headquartered in London but works mainly in Kenya. "And scientists in Tanzania are afraid to protest out of fear that their work permits will be cancelled."

But David Morgan, head of science at CITES, says that although some numbers, such as the CITES Panel of Expert's report on Zambia, are not out yet, they are only a part of the whole picture. "The Parties will be gathering information from a wide variety of sources," he says. "We think all the information is available to make an informed decision."

The situation is complicated because both Tanzania and Zambia share borders with other nations. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) shares three distinct populations of elephants with the Tanzania National Parks, and is outraged that Tanzania put in the proposal without prior consultation.

In January, Kenya led the African Elephant Coalition — a group of more than 20 African nations opposed to the ivory trade — in meetings in Brussels to lobby the European Union against the Tanzanian and Zambian proposals.

Kenya and seven other countries have since called for a 20-year moratorium on all ivory sales. "All countries in Africa have stockpiles of ivory," says Patrick Omondi, head of species conservation and management at the KWS. "But it's not the right time to put them on the market." 

  • References

    1. Wasser, S. et al. Science 327, 1331-1332 (2010). | Article
    2. Wasser, S. K. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 4228-4233 (2007). | Article | PubMed | ChemPort |
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