Ivory, once prized as a gift fit for a king, has all but faded from the consciousness of the modern world. But a decision by the global watchdog on trade in endangered species to allow a once-only sale of tusks from four African countries might thrust it back into consumer consciousness - with dire consequences, conservationists warn. At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting last month in The Hague, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia won a long battle to be allowed to sell tusks accumulated in government stockpiles. They say the sale will bring in desperately needed revenue for elephant conservation.
In southern Africa, where rangers have kept a vigilant watch over elephants once threatened with extinction, the poachers' guns have largely fallen silent, aided by a ban on the international ivory trade in 1989 that all but consigned the once revered trophy to the pages of history.
But further north, in central and western Africa, thousands of elephants are being slaughtered as men armed with machine guns exact a terrible toll to feed the underground trade in ivory.
Most of that ivory is bound for Asia where smugglers find a ready market to turn it into musical instruments, jewellery, chopsticks, name seals or carvings.
According to Richard Thomas, communications co-ordinator for Traffic International, which monitors trade in wild animals, mainland China is the major importer of illegal ivory but has taken steps to tackle its domestic market. Thailand also is a destination for ivory smuggled from Africa. The Philippines is largely a transit destination, Taiwanese officials infrequently seize large consignments of smuggled ivory, while Japan trades in ivory. Hong Kong and Singapore are often used as transit points and high volumes of ivory have been seized in both cities. Vietnam has an active domestic ivory market.
Elephants mean different things to different people. For people from relatively affluent countries with no elephant populations they symbolise a primal cry for action and conservation.
For a minister from an African country they are a resource, a commodity which has the potential to bring in great wealth in the form of tourism and trade, and can be a source of meat for locals who consider it a delicacy.
For a mahout in East Asia they are bulldozers, tractors or forklifts with a mind of their own. For a beggar on the streets of Bangkok they are a way to make a fast buck to keep his family in food. To a subsistence farmer they are hell on four legs as they decimate crops, eat a year's work in one night, push over laboriously constructed fences and even break into homes for alcohol and kill family members. For a poacher an elephant is potential wealth, a chance to escape grinding poverty or a means to an arms supply to fuel a local war.
But while northern African elephant stocks are haemorrhaging to ivory poachers, in southern Africa the problem is the opposite. South Africa sparked an international outcry over its recent plans to cull excess elephants from its herds.
Botswana's elephants are becoming a headache as growing herds conflict with humans, often with disastrous results. Elephants require vast tracts of land that could be put to use by farmers, they need a suitable habitat, usually open plains, and consume large amounts of water and feed. Containing them requires full-time management, expensive electric fencing and continuous monitoring. It is expensive not only in monetary terms, but also in the impact on local people who often rely on the same resources the elephants need.
Yet conserving a herd of elephants is not the single aim of game parks. For them it is about preserving habitats and all the creatures that live in them, says Michael Wamithi, former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, who is currently with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Game parks bring in much needed revenue from the tourist trade.
At last month's Cites meeting, African nations clashed over how best to conserve their country's elephants. Those with growing herds wanted to sell ivory to bring in cash resources that they argue can be ploughed back into conservation.
Those with plunging elephant numbers feared - along with most conservationists - that allowing the sale of ivory would reopen the floodgates to poachers and buyers across the world, feeding what seems to be an insatiable demand for a product which is still coveted in the east. In the years before the total ban on ivory sales, from 1973 to 1987, the elephant populations of Kenya and Uganda were decimated, with numbers falling by 85 per cent as poachers became better organised and armed themselves with automatic weapons that made the killing more destructive and efficient.
Under a Cites compromise reached in the pre-dawn hours two weeks ago, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe will be allowed to make one sale of ivory in addition to the one-off sale totalling 60 metric tonnes that was agreed to in principle in 2002 and given the green light by the Cites standing committee on June 2. Cites secretary-general Willem Wijnstekers estimates that the four nations have a combined stockpile of up to 260 tonnes of ivory, all of which will be sold to Japan.
The ivory will come from government stocks, from animals poached or culled that have been registered and verified before January 31 this year. The ivory has to be sent in a single shipment per destination, and can go only to countries whose domestic sales of ivory have been verified by the Cites secretariat. Japan is the only country to fulfil these requirements.
Once these shipments have been completed no new sales proposals from these four countries will be considered by Cites for nine years.
The agreement was hailed as a victory for African nations finding 'African solutions', and as a victory for elephant conservation in particular and endangered species in general.
But Mr Wamithi warns the easing of controls, however slight, will open the floodgates and fuel consumer demand for ivory. 'Any ivory on the market creates a demand which cannot be adequately supplied by legal sources,' he says, adding that the increased pressure on the market is likely to make it more lucrative for poachers and smugglers willing to risk their lives for a quick return.
Keeping track of legal ivory is difficult, he points out, and there is no way for the consumer to know whether what they are buying is clean. Bigger pieces, such as works of art or raw tusks should have government certification, although this is not a legal requirement, even in Japan. But a pair of earrings or a brooch will not require certification. And then there is the lucrative name seal trade. Tusks arriving in Japan are chopped into 'blanks', which are turned into hanko - or signature stamps. There is no way to trace the origin of the tonnes of ivory consumed by this industry.
Dr Thomas, however, does not believe the sale of the ivory will expand the market to new buyers, even in Asia.
'I doubt whether increased availability will increase consumer awareness. There can be very few people who don't know what ivory is and looks like. What it may do is increase demand for ivory products, and this may in turn lead to increased smuggling. Obviously we'll be very much on the lookout for signs of this happening.'
While the conservationists fear the international backlash of the decision, its proponents believe the sale was needed to continue their strategies of sustainable development.
In 1997, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe summed up southern Africa's view on its wildlife conservation strategy when he announced, 'We believe a species must pay its own way to survive'.
In these countries, animals and plants have been treated as a common resource under the active management of locals who get to keep the profits of their labour.
This approach has been extremely successful, especially in Zimbabwe where farmers have even turned their land over to wildlife because the resulting profits are better than they would get from farming. Communities involved in the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (Campfire) manage 1 per cent of the elephants' habitat. In return they can allow hunting of the elephants for cash, which they have then used to buy services the community would not otherwise be able to afford. The elephants bring wealth and a better standard of living and the local people have a direct interest in preserving the resource.
Even though the southern African countries argue the money raised from the newly awarded sales will go to helping conserve the elephants, Mr Wamithi is not convinced. 'You know there is a lot of corruption,' he says. 'And there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that the money does go back to the elephants.'
According to Mr Wamithi ivory is now fetching its highest ever price, with one kilogram costing up to US$800.
Hong Kong merchants were this week unaware of the agreement reached at The Hague conference. Chinese emporium Yue Hwa said all the ivory it sells comes from pre-ban stocks.