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Tanzania withdraws bid to sell 'legal ivory;' Kenyan poachers kill 12 elephants (+video)

Conservation groups rebuff Tanzania's bid to sell $55 million in ivory and downgrade elephants' endangered status. But Kenya's largest massacre of elephants Jan. 5 points to the difficulties of ending poaching.

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International restrictions on elephant ivory poaching gained a bit of clout after a key African nation abandoned efforts to sell a hefty trove of “legal ivory.”

But even as observers hoped that Tanzania's decision would ripple across Africa, sending a bigger message to poachers, the massacre of an entire family of 12 elephants in a Kenyan park Jan. 5 – the largest single killing ever here – shows how fragile protections across the continent still are for the creatures.

In October, Tanzania wished to sell ivory stockpiles valued at $55 million to China and Japan. The bid was set for debate in Bangkok this March at a Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). At the same time,Tanzania was planning to request to remove elephants from the highest level or “most endangered” species list to a lower category. Tanzania insists its ivory stock, weighing more than 100 tons, comes from dead or culled animals that were not poached.

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But opposition to the sale from conservation groups and anti-crime lobbies proved too stiff, and by the end of December Tanzania withdrew its bid.

Anti-poachers argued that such a large volume of ivory, made suddenly available on the global market, would send all the wrong signals and further embolden illegal trade, smuggling, and poaching. Tanzania's withdrawal of sale was seen as indirectly supporting anti-poaching.

“We see this [withdrawal] as a positive move that will inspire others to invest more on wildlife protection. It would have meant far more problems for Tanzania and its wildlife,” says Saidi Katensi, the CEO of African Wildlife Service of Tanzania. 

Doesn't translate to other African nations

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Yet poachers in Kenya last week seemed little influenced. They shot the elephant family at the Tvaso East National Park, with a baby apparently crushed by a falling mother.

In a separate incident days later the Kenya Wildlife Service reported its rangers shot two poachers in Isiolo County, about 250 miles north of the park. The service claimed it a recovered a G3 rifle, 12 rounds of ammunition, and eight pieces of ivory.

Public shock at the massacre led Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga to link poaching with the country's economic problems: “Security agencies must treat the … poaching threat as part of the insecurity griping the country and not a wildlife issue to be addressed solely by the Kenya Wildlife Service.”

In 1989 the international banned international ivory trade via CITES after it became apparent that elephant poaching was on the rise and the number of elephants were rapidly declining. Between the 1970s and 1980s, elephant populations dropped from 1.3 million to about 600,000 in 37 countries.  

The World Wildlife Fund today estimates there are 450,000 elephants in Africa.

Market for ivory

At the same time, illegal trade is climbing. A CITES decision in 2008 to allow China and Japan to legally purchase some 100 tons of ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe – seems, ironically, to have spiked illegal ivory trade, mainly to Asia and the Middle East.

On Jan. 4, barely a week after Tanzania dropped it “legal ivory” sale bid, authorities in Hong Kong confiscated more than a ton of elephant tusk valued at $1.4 million.

Hong Kong customs seized a reported 779 pieces of ivory sent from Kenya through Malaysia. This fall authorities there took two large hauls originating from both Kenya and Tanzania.

Still, activists say that the fact that Tanzania dropped its bid to sell the ivory could help efforts to protect elephants amid what activists have described as a global ivory war

“With this proposal off the table at the parties to CITES, [we] can concentrate together to stop the horrific trafficking in ivory that is threatening the existence of elephant populations,” said Azzedine Downes, president and CEO of IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare).  “2011 was the worst year on record for ivory seizure and 2012 has seen enormous seizures.”

Conservationists in Kenya, meanwhile, are planning to start using small monitoring drones in an effort to protect elephants and other highly poached animals there. Ol Pajeta, a local conservancy, says it is spending $35,000 to acquire drone craft from Unmanned Innovation Incorporated, a US company. The drones fitted with small cameras will be used to protect the Northern White Rhinos, a species which is endangered because of its horn.

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