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Published: Friday, 1/17/2003

The lure of ivory

FEAR that an approved sale of ivory - collected from elephants that died of natural causes or were killed as part of government control procedures - will increase elephant poaching is what lies behind environmentalists' objections to a sale next spring.

Their concern is genuine. It remains to be seen whether it is valid. The proposed sale would be the second of its kind since 1989, when the ivory trade was banned by an international pact the United Nations administers.

The ban was necessary. By the mid-20th century, thanks to human population pressures and poachers, who killed with abandon to harvest elephants' ivory tusks, the number of African elephants shrank dangerously low. Their ivory was desirable the world over for things ranging from decorative items to piano and organ keys and billiard balls. There have been electronic applications as well.

Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa say their elephant herds have increased enough to risk the sales. Kenya and India, like the environmentalists, counter that approval will prompt more poaching.

The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species endorsed the sales in November, with conditions.

Among them is that the convention's secretariat will delay the selling date if the countries haven't pulled together enough data on poaching and elephant populations for it to decide whether the sales will threaten elephant populations.

Getting that information is crucial to environmentalists' support. They have a practiced suspicion of approvals made before the data are in.

The World Wildlife Federation wanted a sale to wait until all parties to the convention agreed that adequate monitoring of both African and Asian elephants was in place. That would only serve to allow huge stocks of tusks to accumulate from legitimate elephant deaths.

The evidence isn't in that a new sale will trigger an open season on elephants. And there is ample time to shut down again at the first sign that it does.

The integrity of the African governments is on the line here, along with the strength of their conviction to protect these extraordinary animals and the quality of United Nations oversight.

If these are not forthcoming, expect to hear a lot more from the nongovernmental agencies concerned with the health and balance of elephant populations - and from the rest of us angered by the selfishness of poachers.

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