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Paris Meeting Seeks Ways to End Elephant Poaching in West Africa - 2004-06-28

Wildlife experts from 14 francophone African countries are meeting in Paris to discuss how to combat poaching of the region's already decimated elephant populations. The talks also aim to secure international funding for wildlife conservation in cash-strapped West African countries.

Just 30 years ago, experts estimated roughly 1.3 million elephants roamed the African continent. Today, there are fewer than 300,000 and their numbers are dwindling. Hastening the elephants' extinction is the easing of restrictions on the legal trade of ivory, coupled with a resurgent demand for ivory from the Far East where it is highly prized.

The result, says Bill Clark of the U.S.-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, is a sharp increase in illegal poaching of elephants in many parts of Africa.

"And it's been going up and up and up ever since," continued Mr. Clark. "Because of this continued pressure to open up [legal] ivory trade. Because the legal trade serves as a vehicle for the illegal trade. It's impossible to tell a piece of ivory once it in a retail shop in Tokyo or somewhere whether it had a legal or an illegal origin. And we're trying to grapple with some of these problems now."

Francophone West Africa has had little success in combating illegal poaching. Today, for example, there are only about 35 elephants left in Senegal. Neighboring countries count their elephant populations only in the hundreds. Part of the problem, Mr. Clark says, is that local wildlife officials simply don't have money to protect their animals. Nor are they able to secure grants from largely English-speaking donor organizations.

"A large part of Africa speaks French," he said. "And much of the conservation movement world wide, the international strength of it, speaks English. So often the problems of French-speaking Africa are overlooked, mostly for very innocent linguistic problems. We're offering a venue here for them to come together to discuss their particular problems."

In the long run, wildlife experts say, protecting elephants means figuring a way to stop the illegal ivory trade. Environmentalists are divided over whether this means banning all trade in ivory, or simply finding better ways of stopping the illegal market. A disturbing new facet to the problem, Mr. Clark says, is that terrorist groups in Somalia and elsewhere are discovering that illegal ivory trading is a new source of revenue.