The elephant population in Africa plummeted from about 1.2 million to 600,000 in the 1980s, prompting a global ban on all ivory trade in 1989.
Some elephant populations have stabilized since the ban. Meanwhile, several countries have built up stockpiles of ivory culled from elephants who've died from natural causes.
John Lovett, World Wildlife Fund
A few African countries have persuaded CITES to allow a one-time sell-off of their stockpiles in 2004. Conservationists say even such a limited trade will encourage poaching.
Delegates to a United Nations wildlife conference have agreed to ease a 13-year-old global ban on ivory trading. The ban was imposed at the end of the 1980s, after well-armed teams of ivory poachers killed more than half a million African elephants in little more than a decade. The decision is a victory for southern African nations who want to use the profits from limited ivory sales to fund conservation programs. But by some accounts, it was a defeat for the elephants. NPR's John Nielsen reports for All Things Considered.
Eastern African nations such as Kenya lost almost all of their elephants to poachers in the 1980s. Most of those poachers disappeared when the trading ban was imposed. Conservationists have argued for years that the poachers will come back if the ban is lifted, even temporarily.
Unlike Kenya, the southern African countries of Botswana and Zimbabwe lost only a few of their elephants to poachers in the 1980s. They used to fund their elephant conservation programs by selling off ivory seized from poachers. That money all but dried up when the ban was imposed.
Now, it's flowing again, says Nielsen.
At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) now underway in Chile, several southern African nations have been granted one-time exemptions to the ivory-trading ban. The exemptions will allow Botswana, Namibia and South Africa to sell off tens of millions of dollars worth of stockpiled ivory.
These exemptions were granted, Nielsen reports, after the United States surprised most of the delegates to the convention by endorsing the exemptions in the strongest possible terms. Craig Manson, head of the U.S. delegation to CITES, says he was impressed by a southern African promise to funnel profits from the ivory sales into locally based and absolutely essential elephant conservation programs.
"People care more about animals when the animals have value to the people who have to live with them," Manson tells Nielsen.
Manson also says he's been assured that very little of this stockpiled ivory was seized from poachers; 99 percent allegedly came from elephants that died from natural causes.
Teresa Telecky of the U.S. Humane Society is quick to note that this vote was a first for the U.S. delegation. Never before had it endorsed an exemption to the ban. Telecky says it is virtually certain that the legal ivory sales will revive the previously dormant black market for ivory. She also says the Americans had angered many of their colleagues by announcing their support for the southern African proposal "out of the blue."
"They didn't talk to African countries, they didn't talk to their colleagues in Europe. They didn't talk to anybody," she says.
Zimbabwe and Zambia were denied a similar request. By some accounts, poaching in both of those countries has risen sharply in recent years, as locally based conservation programs have been abandoned in the face of unrelated political turmoil.