In a bid to raise money for elephant conservation projects, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe yesterday, put on auction over a 100 tonnes of ivory to buyers from China and Japan.
The sale was approved in principle in 2002; and at last year’s CITES meeting in The Hague, delegates agreed that enough precautions had been taken that the auction could go ahead, with Japan as the sole validated buyer.
Earlier this year, CITES decided that China had acted against the illegal trade with enough vigor that Chinese companies could also bid for a share of the stockpiled ivory.
Despite the seemingly positive cause of this initiative, some environment and wildlife protection groups say the sales could encourage poachers elsewhere in Africa to kill elephants for ivory and trade them illegally.
The secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the UN body that sanctioned the sale, says it will observe trade in China and Japan to ensure that the companies are not mixing illegally sourced ivory with these legal shipments.
The tusks being sold come mainly from animals that died naturally. China and Japan are however not permitted to export the material.
Data collected by the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic shows that seizures of illegal ivory fell in the years following the last legal sale in 1999 and this is the first officially sanctioned sale of ivory in southern Africa since then.
The 1999 auction raised about $5m for conservation and community projects. But with Chinese buyers also involved, a total bounty of $30m is said to be possible this time around.
The ivory trade was banned globally in 1989 because poaching was decimating elephant populations. This and the 1999 sale are said to be the only exceptions.