For more than ten years, a U.N. convention on trade in endangered species has greatly restricted sales of ivory products. But those restrictions may soon be dropped, or at least eased. On Sunday, a conference opens in Chile to debate the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Several countries in southern Africa want the convention changed so they can sell off their ivory stockpiles, but other African countries, particularly Kenya, fear this could lead to a serious upsurge in poaching.
In the weeks leading up to the conference on trade in endangered species, officials in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe made it known they wanted the ban on ivory sales relaxed so they could sell their stockpiles. But wildlife officials in Kenya oppose any relaxation, saying it will encourage more elephant killings.
As it is, they say, African countries are already having trouble preventing illegal killings.
Kenya, for example, is struggling to stop elephant poachers from crossing into Kenya from neighboring Somalia. Patrick Omondi is the coordinator of the elephant program of Kenya Wildlife Service. He believes poaching is likely to get even worse if a legal market for ivory is created.
"We have men that do patrols 24 hours," Mr. Omondi said. "But despite that, we still have poachers coming in killing elephants for their ivory. If there was a legal market, we are just fearing this will escalate. Now they are taking it to a black market and we are still threatened."
The five southern African nations say their elephant populations are not endangered. In fact, southern African elephants are culled to keep their numbers at a manageable level. The southern African states also want to sell-off the ivory stockpiles owned by the government and be given quotas allowing a limited trade in ivory products. They say the money gained from the trade would then be used for conservation efforts.
But Kenya has an ally in India, another country that has a large elephant population. Like Kenya, India says it is too early to allow the ivory trade to resume. Both argue that the countries of southern Africa should wait until a system called MIKE, for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants, is in place.
Once MIKE starts to function, Mr. Omondi says, it will provide reliable information on how many elephants are being illegally killed around the world. "This MIKE is just starting in Africa," he said. "In Asia, it's not started yet. We are saying, let's have this monitoring system in place, that it has gathered enough data, baseline information, and if an experiment can be started, in maybe 10 years, we will have a mechanism that will pick up information of illegal killing across the African continent."
The current ban on ivory trading was introduced in 1989 and is regarded as a success. In the years since it was approved, the demand for ivory has decreased and ivory prices have collapsed. Most importantly, say the backers of the ban, the steep decline of Africa's elephant population has been halted.
But Kenyan officials add that when a one-time sale of stockpiled ivory was allowed in 1999, there was an upsurge in poaching within Kenya.