London, July 12 : The world trade in ivory, banned 19 years ago to save the African elephant from extinction, is about to take off again, with the emergence of China as a major ivory buyer, which could spark off a new wave of elephant poaching and threaten the species.
According to a report in the Independent, alarmed conservationists are warning of a new wave of elephant killing across both Africa and Asia if China is allowed to become a legal importer, as looks likely at a meeting in Geneva next week.
The unleashing of a massive Chinese demand for ivory, in the form of trinkets, name seals, expensive carvings and polished ivory tusks, is likely to give an enormous boost to the illegal trade, which is entirely poaching-based, according to conservationists.
"This is going to mean a return to the bad old days where elephants are being shot into extinction," said Allan Thornton, of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the group that provided much of the evidence on which the original ivory ban was based in 1989.
Elephant numbers across the continent were estimated to have crashed from 1.3 million in 1980 to 625,000 in 1989.
But, the ban in 1989 succeeded in halting a headlong decline of African elephants at the hands of poachers, especially in east African countries such as Kenya.
Now, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe are planning an auction of 108 tonnes, and the Chinese are seeking "approved buyer" status, claiming they are much more active now in combating illegal trading activities.
Their application will be heard at the Geneva meeting next week of the Cites Standing Committee, which will also consider allowing the second ivory auction.
Both proposals are likely to get the green light as the Cites secretariat is making a favourable recommendation in each case.
But, environmentalists fiercely dispute the effectiveness of China's crackdown and raise the larger issue of the huge ivory demand that is about to be unleashed from the country.
"In a country of 1.3 billion people, demand for ivory from just a fraction of one per cent of the population is colossal," said Allan Thornton of the EIA. "If these new legal imports go ahead, they will provide a gigantic cover for illegal ivory to be sucked in," he added.
"Right now across central Africa, elephant populations are being destroyed in countries like Chad, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to satisfy illegal demand in countries such as China," he added.
According to Thornton, the current estimate is that 23,000 African elephants are killed a year by poachers - which is totally unsustainable. If China becomes an approved trading partner, these figures will skyrocket.