It was a sight few wildlife lovers could forget: $3.5-million (U.S.) worth of precious elephant tusks deliberately being set on fire in Kenya. The blaze went on for hours, filmed by news crews from around the world.
"There was hardly a newspaper or radio station in the world that didn't publicize that ivory burning, and, for a moment, people everywhere became aware of elephants and the approach of their extinction," renowned wildlife conservationist and paleontologist Richard Leakey, who orchestrated the incineration in 1989, said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune last year.
The bonfire of ivory was designed to tell the world that behind each pair of tusks lay a butchered specimen from Africa's dwindling elephant population. Elephant ivory, the message went, is too ethically dirty to own.
This week, four African nations, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, launched a bid to change that message. They want to see a revivified ivory trade and an annual legal quota of sales, arguing that they will use the trade profits to help pull the elephants back from the edge of extinction.
Dr. Leakey's bold, if bloody-minded, campaign is widely considered the most successful conservation education program the world has seen. And it was a classic in the conservationists' tactical arsenal of showing the consumer where goods come from in the first place.
But, like the issue of elephant ivory itself, Dr. Leakey's bonfire is vigorously debated to this day. Some believe that it was nothing short of a dreadful waste.
"There has not ever been a black and white answer on the ivory trade and there will never be a black and white answer on the ivory trade," said Craig Hoover, deputy director of Traffic North America, a wildlife monitoring program set up by the World Wildlife Fund and the IUCN (World Conservation Union).
Dr. Leakey, who was then the head of Kenya's Wildlife Service, made a compelling argument against the trade. While the hunting of elephants had gone on sedately for hundreds of years, by the 1970s, it had run amok. Gangs of poachers were roaming Africa, armed with automatic weapons, shooting whatever elephant they spotted. Then they would hack off the tusks, leave the massive mammal to rot in the African heat and sell the ivory into a thriving international market.
From 1986 to 1989, the demand for ivory grew so fast that 300,000 elephants were killed off, nearly a third of Africa's total population of the animals, according to a report put together by the Ivory Trade Review Group. A kilogram of ivory sold for as much as $150 (U.S.) on the wholesale export market. In Africa, this is an undreamed-of fortune.
Some of that ivory made its way to the United States, Canada and Europe, as well as to Eastern destinations such as Hong Kong and Japan. At its peak, roughly 770 tonnes of ivory exports were coming out of Africa every year from about 75,000 dead elephants.
Shortly after Dr. Leakey's bonfire, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned trade in elephant ivory. The African elephant population was about 625,000.
Today, Africa has roughly 500,000 elephants, according to Nairobi-based geographer Esmond Bradley Martin, who has conducted the most comprehensive study yet on ivory trading. In 1979, there were about 1.3 million.
African elephants face a "very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future," according to the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Meanwhile, ivory has become so unfashionable that its wholesale export price (in a small but thriving illegal market, mainly to Europeans) is as little as $30 (U.S.) a kilogram, Dr. Martin said.
Many of the African craftsmen who once worked the ivory have moved out of the business. In 1985, Zimbabwe had about 200 full-time ivory craftsmen. By 1999, it had fewer than 30 and even these worked part-time, Dr. Martin's study found.
"It showed that the ivory ban worked," Dr. Martin said in an interview in Amman shortly after he finished his study.
Into this mix comes pressure from some of the heavyweight African countries to bring the ivory trade back to life. These countries are doing a reasonably good job of taking care of their elephants. And they want to be able to use the money from the sales to protect even more, both by safeguarding their habitat and by financing anti-poaching teams.
This is another classic conservation philosophy: Use the resource to protect the resource, or take a few as long as you don't take them all. The whole discipline of wildlife management is based on this principle.
But the ivory trade is only part of the problem. Equally dire for the elephants are the pressures from Africa's fast-growing human population. Human activity eats up the habitat elephants need to survive. In some parts of the continent, these endangered mammals are considered pests and are routinely killed for raiding a garden.
"Elephants need a lot of space," said Willem Wijnstekers, secretary-general of CITES. "If we give them more space, it means giving people less space."
The four African countries want two things: a one-off bulk sale of about 70,000 kilograms of ivory that they have had in storage for years and a tightly controlled annual sale of 15,000 kilograms.
Their proposal, published this week by the CITES secretariat and set to be debated in November in Chile, has received strong support from at least 12 African nations and Japan, Vivek Menon, executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India, told reporters. Kenya and India, on the other hand, are opposed to any trade.
Dr. Leakey, as is to be expected, is vehemently against the resumption of the ivory trade. He maintains that Kenya's elephants are worth more alive than dead because ecotourists love to see them. He has given interviews in the past few years saying a rebirth in ivory trade would doubtless lead to a rebirth in indiscriminate elephant poaching across Africa and Asia.
But David Brackett, a Canadian biologist who is chairman of the IUCN's species survival commission, said the dimensions of the ivory problem are as diverse as the African continent itself.
A total trade ban is a blunt instrument that can work against countries that are taking good care of their elephants. In effect, they are made to pay for the inability of other countries to do the same.
On the other hand, if poaching resumes now as it did in the 1980s, when many African countries were less desperate than they are now, it could spell the end of the species altogether, no matter how carefully elephants are tended.
Mr. Hoover, of Traffic's Washington office, noted that a similar African proposal fell off the table, after great anguish, during the last round of CITES negotiations 2½ years ago.
"The thing we struggle with is that this issue is never resolved," he said. "We have to revisit it every time. We don't get any kind of closure on it."
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