GENEVA (AP) — A call to resume the legal ivory trade as a way to stop the recent rise in elephant poaching in Africa was expected to dominate debate at a U.N. conservation meeting that began Monday.
The proposal was put forward in a report commissioned by the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a treaty overseen by the U.N. Environment Program in Geneva. It would set up a centralized system to allow for the sale of ivory from elephants that either died naturally or as a result of trophy hunting, or were considered a threat or culled for ecological reasons.
This is the first time such a proposal has been made since a global ban on ivory went into effect in 1989. That ban for the most part halted widespread poaching, but the problem has grown since 2004 as Asian demand for ivory chopsticks, statues and jewelry has risen.
"Given the present rise in illegal killing of elephants in West, Central and East Africa, it is clear that current measures are not containing the present upsurge in the illegal trade in ivory," the report concludes.
The proposal, which would need to be voted on at the CITES meeting next year in Bangkok, was expected to set off a fierce debate, especially among African delegates attending this week's gathering in Geneva.
Southern African countries, where the majority of elephants are, want some form of legal trade to help pay for their conservation efforts and sell off already growing ivory stocks. Central and East African countries have in the past opposed any legal trade, fearing it will undermine conservation efforts and further bolster the illegal trade.
Environmentalists, too, have come out against the proposal because they argue that the reasoning behind it — that legal trade would help reduce ivory prices, and thus demand — remain unproven.
A proposal for one-off sales by Tanzania and Zambia at the 2010 CITES meeting in Doha was defeated.
Mary Rice, executive director of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, said her research advocacy group, which has campaigned against the illegal trade for two decades, "remains deeply concerned that any more 'legal' sales — or discussion of 'legal' sales — of ivory will further stimulate the ivory market, supporting the perception that international trade has resumed and increasing demand for illegal ivory."
Even if the proposal is defeated, delegates will be searching for some way to address growing threats to elephants, a month after a CITES report found poaching was at record levels and ivory seizures their highest levels since 1989.
According to the Elephant Trade Information System, three of the five years in which the greatest volumes of ivory were seized globally occurred in 2009, 2010 and 2011. In 2011 alone, there were 14 large-scale ivory seizures_a double-digit figure for the first time in 23 years, when ETIS records were first compiled.
Most of the ivory smuggling containers leave the African continent through Indian Ocean seaports in East African countries, primarily Kenya and the United Republic of Tanzania. They are exported mostly to markets in Thailand and China, although ivory was also seized in Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
This week's CITES meeting won't only be about elephants.
The rise in rhino poaching will also be on the agenda with several measures to tackle the illegal hunting, mostly in South Africa. Among the issues will how better regulate the trophy hunting trade and making greater use of DNA technologies to trace the horns that are seized to help convict poachers and traffickers.
A report by the advocacy group WWF International released at the Geneva meeting found that Vietnam was "the major destination" for rhino horns trafficked from South Africa, where 448 rhinos were poached last year.
In parts of Asia, rhino horn can fetch the equivalent of U.S. street values for cocaine. It is crushed and consumed by people who believe — wrongly, doctors say — that it can cure diseases including cancer, fever and even hangovers.
Casey reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.