THE African elephant is in mortal danger. The poachers' guns, silenced for two years, are firing again. And for good reason: The ivory trade could be legal by this summer.
In 1989, the 112-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) approved a United States-sponsored proposal that banned commercial trade in elephant ivory. Smugglers could no longer use forged or stolen permits to disguise their contraband.
Within months, ivory markets collapsed, prices tumbled, and poaching - which had killed 70,000 elephants a year - fell by 80 percent in most of Africa.
But last June Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi agreed to establish a Southern African Centre for Ivory Marketing (SACIM). Joining South Africa, they have applied to have the ban lifted for their territories. Their proposals will be considered in March, when the CITES parties meet in Japan.
Led by Zimbabwe, they have begun a massive - and misleading - campaign to bring back the ivory trade. Hard-line bureaucrats in the US Fish and Wildlife Service, lobbied by wealthy trophy hunters, have embraced Zimbabwe's position. They claim that Zimbabwe's "superior" wildlife management deserves to be rewarded. The private Environmental Investigation Agency, however, reports that Zimbabwe's Wildlife Department is demoralized, inefficient, and weakened by corruption.
Zimbabwe and Botswana claim to have "surplus" elephants that must be controlled for the good of their environment - something CITES does not prevent. This has nothing to do with the ivory ban. Selective killing does not encourage poachers; selling the ivory does.
There are better ways to derive economic benefits from elephants than restarting the ivory trade. In Kenya, living elephants bring in $20 million a year in tourist revenues. For most of Africa, the ivory ban has saved money that had been needed to fight poachers. That is why Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, and other countries oppose any return of legal ivory trade.
In early January the new government of Zambia agreed. It withdrew its proposal to end the ban, claiming that it had never been properly consulted by Zimbabwe in the first place.