Poaching in India may increase as China opens ivory market

August 8th, 2008 - 10:14 am ICT by IANS  

By Sanjeeb Baruah
New Delhi, Aug 8 (IANS) Elephant poaching in India may increase as China plans to open its domestic market for limited sale of ivory products after a UN committee gave its consent, experts have said. The CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) recently allowed China to import 108 tonnes of elephant ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. China is considered the world’s largest ivory market.

Conservationists here said it would enthuse the illegal ivory market in China that could lead to increased poaching in India.

Experts say there are just about 26,000 to 30,000 wild elephants in the country. They face multiple threats of poaching, depleting habitat and food scarcity.

The four African countries were allowed to sell a combined 108 tonnes of raw ivory as part of a one-off sale before a nine-year trade ban comes into force.

Ashok Kumar, vice chairman of the NGO Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) said: “The CITES decision is a serious setback to elephant conservation which may trigger renewed poaching for ivory in the country.

“India is more vulnerable, since there are few tuskers (In Asian elephants only the male has tusks). The skewed sex ratio of elephants has been a serious concern already.

“When Japan was allowed to lift ivory stocks from these countries in 1999, we saw an increase in elephant poaching in the country.

“We may witness the same situation in the near future. The real danger is that the small number of tuskers could be wiped out unless we have a plan to counter this,” Kumar, a member of the CITES committee on the big cats, told IANS.

According to a WTI estimate, poachers killed at least 220 elephants between 1998 and 1999 in India, whereas in 1997 the number was just about 74.

The UN banned the ivory trade in 1989 after the mass slaughter of elephants in Asia and Africa came to light. However in 1999, the committee revised its position and allowed Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell 34 tonnes of registered ivory stocks to Japan.

These southern African countries saw an increase in elephant population in the last decade. This has been a major source of conflict with humans, who try to protect crops from marauding elephants.

The ivory stocks are from elephants that died of natural causes or were killed in population-management programmes.

Last year, the committee gave Japan the status of a trading partner in the deal, while the decision on China was announced July 15 this year. Both countries had applied to the CITES to obtain the items.

WTI said in one of the biggest seizures in June 2002, Singapore authorities seized six tonnes of ivory, including 532 raw ivory tusks and 40,810 ivory hankos (Japanese name for seals). A Japanese importer reportedly ordered the illegal shipment.

Japan was therefore in violation of its CITES obligations, said Vivek Menon, South Asia director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

An IFAW survey of Asian ivory markets showed the ivory from Asian elephants was considered superior in Japan for making hankos.

Besides, the difficulty in distinguishing Asian ivory from African would allow traders to target elephants across its range.

Experts observed that the number of seizures and the volume of trade increased manifold after Japan was allowed to buy African ivory.

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