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FEATURE - Africa\'s ivory war to dominate CITES meeting

FEATURE - Africa\ s ivory war to dominate CITES meeting
JOHANNESBURG - The next battle in Africa\'s ivory war will be far from the sun-baked savannah where it is usually waged against heavily-armed poachers.
It will be fought on a diplomatic level in Santiago, Chile, where the 12th conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will consider proposals by five southern African countries to loosen the ban on trading ivory. Kenya, which fears its elephants will be targeted by poachers seeking to \"launder\" dirty ivory with legal supplies, is leading the charge to keep the ban firmly in place at the meeting, which is due to take place from November 3-15. \"The trade proposed by five countries will put elephants in 50 countries at risk,\" says the Kenyan government in a statement outlining its official position on the reopening of the trade. Kenya has the staunch backing of India, also fearful for what is left of its elephant population, which is half of the roughly 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. Conservation groups agree, arguing that a renewed trade in the coveted commodity, used for ornamental carvings and jewellery, will see a return of the slaughter that wiped out half of Africa\'s majestic elephant herds in the 1980s. \"Many of the elephant range states...do not have the necessary enforcement capabilities to prevent poaching,\" said Jason Bell-Leask, southern African director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). \"If trade were allowed, they would have to commit extensive financial and human resources to combat poaching,\" he said. The five southern African states seeking to sell ivory - South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia - say money raised will be ploughed back into conservation projects. South Africa says that ivory sales will produce funds \"critically needed for elephant and wildlife management and for the expansion of the national parks system.\" The southern African countries also contend that their own enforcement capacity is more than sufficient to meet any threat posed by poachers. This is probably true for Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. But in Zimbabwe, there have been widespread reports of rampant poaching amid a collapsing economy, political turmoil and rural lawlessness. There are also questions about Zambia\'s ability to stem any surge in poaching as the poverty-stricken country struggles with economic difficulties and critical food shortages that threaten millions with starvation. Critics contend that the amount raised by the proposed ivory auctions will be dwarfed by the sums that poorer countries such as Kenya will have to shell out to boost their enforcement capacities. The proposals vary. Botswana is looking to sell an initial amount of 20 tonnes - no earlier than May 2004 - with annual export quotas of not more than four tonnes from 2005 onwards. Namibia is looking at the same time-frame and an initial sale of 10 tonnes followed by annual export quotas of no more than two tonnes. South Africa is looking at an initial auction of 30 tonnes of its ivory stockpile from the renowned Kruger National Park. Its proposal for subsequent quotas accumulated through mortalities and \"management practices\" has alarm bells ringing in the animal welfare community as the later could point to a resumption of culling to contain population growth. BAN CREDITED WITH STEMMING THE SLAUGHTER The ban on the ivory trade in 1989 is credited widely with halting a bloodbath in the bush that saw Africa\'s elephant population plummet from an estimated 1.2 million to 600,000 in the space of a little over a decade. In Kenya, many game wardens were killed in the line of duty as they did battle with well-armed and ruthless gangs. In 1997, CITES agreed to a partial lifting of the ban, enabling Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia to hold experimental, one-off auctions from stockpiles in 1999 to Japanese buyers. Conservationists say those auctions were linked to an increase in poaching incidents elsewhere in Africa, though that cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Disturbingly, poaching appears to be on the rise again. \"Kenya and India believe that the (current southern African) proposals and the 1999 sale of ivory have sent out a signal that the ivory trade is about to resume, and this has triggered a resurgence of poaching and illegal trade in ivory,\" says the Kenyan government. It points to recent enormous seizures of illegal ivory, including one of six tonnes in Singapore this year, as evidence that poachers and smugglers are back in business. TOO MANY ELEPHANTS, OR TOO FEW? There is also debate about just how endangered Africa\'s elephants are. According to the World Conservation Union\'s 1998 African Elephant database, there may be only around 300,000 to 450,000 elephants left in Africa. Other estimates have been put the number as high as 600,000. In many parts of their range, elephant populations have reached their capacity for the amount of habitat available, bringing them into conflict with soaring human populations on the world\'s poorest continent. Advocates of ivory sales say the commodity, which has been prized and traded for centuries, can help generate income for poor rural Africans, giving them a vested interest in the survival of the world\'s largest land mammal. Opponents counter that far more money can be raised through eco-tourist activities such as game viewing. One thing is certain: the debate will be a hot one in Chile and it won\'t end there. (With additional reporting by William Maclean in Nairobi). Story by Ed Stoddard REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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