Two weeks from Sunday the Obama administration will finally let the world know what they think about elephant conservation. So far, they haven’t.
The silence is deafening. I’m afraid the whales and elephants are being negotiated away for sanctions against Iran.
This will be Obama’s first world forum on conservation. The last CITES convention held in Santiago under the Bush administration was a terrible embarrassment to all Americans. (See my blog.)
We were all hopeful that a very public and forceful presence by the new Obama administration this time would do much to recoup the deficit of trust in America that last conference produced.
But so far, nothing from Ken Salazar’s office. I called his press assistant, Tamara Ward, yesterday and she has not replied.
Many items are on the table, and the Obama administration has announced their position on some of the less controversial ones.
But the main act is a huge fight among African countries as to whether elephants should be downlisted from “endangered” to sort of “endangered” or “protected.” Any downlisting would then allow certain countries to sell stockpiles of ivory.
Zambia and Tanzania are leading the march this time to downlist the elephant, while Kenya and 26 other African countries are mounting the defense.
Zambia and Tanzania have huge stockpiles of ivory. This is collected from naturally dead elephants and confiscated from poachers.
Kenya, too, has stockpiles, but it knows that allowing any sales of ivory will stimulate the trade and motivate poachers. And Kenya has the foresight to know that a healthy elephant population will bring in much more revenue from tourism in the long term than one-off sales of tusks do in the short-term.
The scientific argument as to whether the elephant population is currently healthy enough to withstand increased poaching, or whether increased poaching could actually lead to extinction, is more arcane.
Like everything, today, the countries are actually inspired by money, not science.
It was hoped that the Obama administration would join the European Union in trying to bring some light to the scientific argument, which heavily suggests that increased poaching cannot be withstood.
The silence is deafening.
The conference opens March 13 in Doha, Qatar.
Led and founded by the United States and Kenya, among a few other concerned countries, CITES mirrors the U.S.’ own truly august Endangered Species Act (which preceded the international convention by more than a decade), and is a worldwide agreement on what forms of life can be passed through international borders.
By listing certain species from threatened to endangered into five different categories, the countries signing the convention agree to various regulations that are placed on their trade.
This could be as little as enhanced scrutiny, to as is currently the case with elephants, an outright ban on trade.
Scientists generally agree that prior to the corporate poaching of elephants which began in the late 1970s, that there were as many as 1.3 million. Today, there are 470,000.
But at the nadir of the long history of elephants, the population probably dipped to around 200,000 by the mid 1980s.
When the first CITES convention met to specifically deal with elephants and banned their trade, the black market price of a kilogram of ivory declined from $300 to $3 in one year. Poaching dried up.
By 1988, Kenya’s population of elephants had declined from 167,000 fifteen years earlier, to only 16,000. (Today it is around 30,000.)
As the situation improved throughout the continent, the irritated southern African countries (where poaching had always been better controlled) insisted they be allowed to sell legally harvested ivory.
The first sale after the treaty banned all sales in 1989 was allowed in 1999; 50 tons were exported to Japan. Poaching immediately started up, again. In June, 2002, the largest shipment of illegal ivory since the 1989 ban was seized by Singapore authorities. DNA analysis showed the ivory originated in Zambia. The cargo was destined for Japan and comprised 532 elephant tusks and more than 40,000 already cut pieces of ivory weighing more than 6.5 tons.
Nevertheless, the trend continued to allow more selling, in part because of the Bush administration’s tacit approval.
In November 2002 at a CITES convention, it was agreed that Botswana, Namibia and South Africa could export 60 tons of ivory.
Then, a second CITES-negotiated sale occurred in 2008. Zimbabwe sold108 tons to Japan and China. Predictions that this sale in particular would fuel an increasing appetite for ivory among the rapidly growing Chinese middle classes proved true.
In 2009 China opened 37 new government “ivory” stores.
Today, a kilo of ivory sells for $1500 in the Far East. In Kenya a poacher gets about $40, but even a small pair of 20-kilo tusks brings a poacher the equivalent of $800, just below the average amount a Kenyan worker earns per year.
It seems, though, that the Obama administration wants to be as namby-pamby with regards to conservation as it is to health care.
The U.S. delegation is supporting a handful of “listings” including a nearly extinct cockatoo in Indonesia and the very popular polar bear which impacts Eskimos and few others. Inuit are not party to trade agreements.
And, of course, “bipartisanism” with China is as important as with Republicans on health care.
We know where that got us.