By Bryan Walsh
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. More....