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UN lets China import ivory despite opposition

A United Nations panel granted China permission on Tuesday to import elephant ivory from African government stockpiles despite opposition from some countries and environmental groups.

The standing committee overseeing the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, voted nine to three with two abstentions that China qualified for the exception needed for the one-off auction because it has dramatically im\proved its enforcement of ivory rules.

Ivory trade was banned globally in 1989, but reviving elephant populations allowed African countries to make a one-time sale a decade later to Japan, the only country which had previously won the right to import.

Last year, Cites authorised Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to make a second sale of 108 tonnes of government stocks.

The body’s spokesperson, Juan Carlos Vasquez, said after Tuesday’s vote that China and Japan would bid for their share of ivory at an auction later this year.

The stocks approved for sale include about 44 tonnes from Botswana, nine tonnes from Namibia, 51 tonnes from South Africa and four tonnes from Zimbabwe.

Cites secretary general Willem Wijnstekers said the body will closely supervise the sale.

”We will continue monitoring the Chinese and Japanese domestic trade controls to ensure that unscrupulous traders do not take this opportunity to launder ivory from illegal origin,” he said in a statement.

China was pleased with the decision.

”China has strived for this status for a long time,” said Wan Ziming, a member of the Chinese delegation.

Still, there was opposition to China’s inclusion in the latest auction from African countries Ghana and Kenya, which joined Australia in trying to block the decision. Those in favour included Britain, the European Union and Japan.

”It’s very evident that China has made an enormous commitment,” Tom Milliken, a senior investigator at Traffic, the world’s largest wildlife trade monitor, said on Monday. ”Seizures are occurring at a very fast clip these days. The government is putting a lot more in enforcement efforts.”

Wan said the Chinese would do their best to ensure that ”illegal ivory cannot enter into the legal market”.

But some environment groups disagreed and said their case was strengthened by the Chinese government’s revelation that it lost track of 121 tonnes of ivory over a dozen years that probably was sold on illegal markets.

China told the Cites in 2003 that the ”shortfall” — equal to the tusks from about 11 000 dead elephants — was accumulated between 1991 and 2002. The Associated Press obtained the document last week from the Environmental Investigation Agency, a watchdog based in Washington and London that was seeking to prevent China from gaining permission to trade ivory.

Allan Thornton, the agency’s chairperson, said last week that China had left too many questions unanswered to be given the right to import. He said trading of ivory — a booming black market commodity, with tusks, jewellery and trinkets bringing in millions of dollars for smugglers and sellers since the 1989 ban — was ”out of control”.

The agency said more than 20 000 elephants a year are killed illegally in Africa and Asia for the ivory black market, and that Chinese nationals have been implicated in illegal ivory seizures in more than 20 African nations.

Milliken, who was part of Cites’ original mission to China in 2005, disagreed.

”Does illegal trade continue? Yes. But that’s probably inevitable,” Milliken said, adding that Japan showed that one-time ivory sales had no correlation with a rise in illegal smuggling.

Trade in elephant ivory far eclipses any demand for other animals’ tusks.

Much of the ivory destined for China is carved into jewellery and ornaments bought by tourists from other parts of Asia.

After the sale, the four Southern African countries will not be allowed to export ivory again for nine years and must use the sale proceeds for programmes to protect their elephant populations. – Sapa-AP

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