Ivory stockpile confusion

A report released last week questions how large South Africa’s ivory stockpile is and suggests that inadequate data might be assisting ivory smugglers. Also uncovered last week was widespread smuggling on the internet auction site eBay, which has now banned ivory items from its site.

Animal Rights Africa’s report, Silences and Spin Doctoring: Access to Information on Elephants in South Africa investigates how much ivory the country has actually stockpiled.

The group said it could not ascertain this from the department of environment and tourism or from provincial environmental departments.

It is thought that smugglers are able to use gaps in data on countries’ official ivory stockpiles to sell their own illegal ivory off as part of the official stockpile.

Last week South Africa announced that it will sell 51 tons of stockpiled ivory in a once-off sale. The report asks how the sale can be condoned in the light of inadequate data.

The sale is to proceed after the international trade in elephant ivory was given the green light in June by the United Nations-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) for the first time in nearly 10 years. Cites gave South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe permission to sell 108 tons of stockpiled ivory a week from now — the remnants of about 10 000 elephants.

The stockpile consists of ivory that was verified by the Cites secretariat as being of legal origin — that is, it originates from ivory breaking off elephants in a national park, from government-sanctioned culling or from elephants that died of natural causes.

About 45% of South Africa’s ivory was obtained before 1994, when culling was still practised in the Kruger National Park. The balance of the ivory, from 1995 to the end of 2006, derives from elephant mortalities and broken tusks.

Ivory registered since 2007, however, is not eligible for sale.

Animal Rights Africa has been one of the most vocal opponents of the sale and its report this week deplores the lack of official information on culling, hunting and ivory stockpiles.

The group’s spokesperson, Michele Pickover, said the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism did not have a figure for South Africa’s total ivory stockpile.

The department did not respond to questions from the Mail & Guardian last week.

In another anti-smuggling development eBay was forced to remove offers of ivory from its site after a report on wildlife trade this week revealed the site was used for widespread smuggling. The report, by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), singled out eBay as the largest contributor to the problem, responsible for almost two-thirds of the online trade in wildlife products worldwide.

Titled Killing with Keystrokes: An Investigation of the Illegal Wildlife Trade on the World Wide Web, the report shows that more than 70% of internet sales involving products from endangered species occur in the United States.

“With a few limited exceptions, selling ivory has been illegal since 1989,” said Jason Bell-Leask, director of Ifaw Southern Africa.

“However, websites are still teeming with ivory trinkets, bracelets and even whole tusks for sale.”

More than 4 000 elephant ivory listings were uncovered during Ifaw’s investigation, with most of the sales taking place on eBay’s US site.

In one instance a user bought a pair of elephant tusks off eBay for more than $21 000.

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