Alarmed at the threatened extinction of elephants by poachers who kill the magnificent beasts for their ivory tusks, an international convention in 1989 imposed a global ban on the ivory trade. In spite of that ban, five African nations this week announced plans for a regional authority to market ivory.
This is a shocking example of shortsighted self-indulgence, particularly since the prohibition on ivory sales has been effective in dramatically reducing slaughter of the endangered animals in some parts of Africa.Officials from Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe are scheduled to sign an agreement Jan. 28 setting up the marketing authority. They say it will be tightly controlled, with only one outlet for ivory products in the entire region. The plan calls for ivory to be sold once or twice a year at an auction in Botswana.
Since the ban is a voluntary agreement and carries no legal sanctions - only moral ones - it cannot be effectively enforced, particularly against a government-sponsored marketing program involving several nations.
Those same officials argue that the elephant population in the five nations numbers 100,000 and is growing at the rate of 5 percent a year, creating elephant overpopulation. At the same time, they say unauthorized killing of elephants has continued as poachers stockpile ivory in anticipation that the world ban might be lifted later this year.
The two arguments seem contradictory. In any case, the deal to market ivory only rewards the poachers for the continued killing. The official attitude of not taking the ban seriously is probably one reason it reportedly did not reduce poaching. How this will affect efforts to end poaching in other areas is not clear, but it cannot help and may hurt.
The real reason for violating the global ban on ivory trade has little to do with too many elephants or the ineffectiveness in ending poaching. Trading in ivory is seen as an important source of income for those five countries, all of them relatively poor. It's a problem that will be hard to overcome.