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U.N. gathering rejects southern African bids to trade ivory, rhino horn

By Reuters | Oct 3rd 2016 | 3 min read

JOHANNESBURG: Namibia and Zimbabwe failed on Monday to convince a U.N. body that they should be allowed to export ivory, while Swaziland lost a bid to sell ivory horn - moves they all argued would protect rather than endanger big animals.

Member states of the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted overwhelmingly at a conference to reject the proposals to sell tusks and horns seized from poachers, are taken from animals that die naturally, or have been put down by the state because they have caused problems such as crop destruction.

"African elephants are in steep decline across much of the continent due to poaching for their ivory, and opening up any legal trade in ivory would complicate efforts to conserve them," said Ginette Hemley, the head of the CITES delegation for conservation group WWF. "It could offer criminal syndicates new avenues to launder poached ivory."

A global ban on ivory sales was imposed in 1989 to curb a wave of poaching, but in one-off rulings CITES allowed Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell stockpiles to Japan, and South Africa to sell to China and Japan in 2008.

A similar ban was applied to rhino horn in 1977 but poaching of both elephants and rhinos has soared in recent years to meet red-hot demand in newly affluent Asian economies such as China and Vietnam.

Ivory is prized for its decorative qualities while rhino horn is a key ingredient in traditional Asian medicines. There is also speculative demand from buyers betting that prices will skyrocket if rhinos are poached to extinction.

South Africa, home to most of the world's rhinos, has been the epicentre of the horn killings. In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa, a number that leapt to 448 in 2011, and reached a record 1,215 in 2014. In 2015, 1,175 were poached.

Elephant slaughter

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of elephants have been slain, mostly in east and southern Africa.

Namibia and cash-strapped Zimbabwe argue the sales are needed to raise money for conservation and that their rhino and elephant populations have been stable or growing, triggering conflict with poor rural farmers.

Zimbabwe asked CITES for a green light to sell a 70-tonne ivory stockpile estimated to be worth $35 million. Swaziland, a poor country relying heavily on donors, wanted to sell 330 kg (700 pounds) of rhino horn, worth an estimated $10 million, also for conservation funds including security.

Other African nations, such as Kenya, are strongly opposed to any reopening of the ivory or horn trade on the grounds that it will stimulate demand and threaten its pachyderms.

In the secret ballots, Namibia's proposal lost 73 to 27, Zimbabwe's 80 to 21, both far short of the two-thirds required to pass. Swaziland's was defeated 100 to 26.

Rhino horn can be harvested without killing the animal as it grows back after being cut off. But ivory can only be extracted from a dead animal.

"Ivory belongs to the elephants and ivory is worth more on a live animal rather than a dead animal," Kenyan Environment Minister Judi Wakhungu told Reuters.

Kenya has for decades focused on wildlife-watching safaris and ecotourism as the main revenue streams from its big animals. In April it burnt 105 tonnes of ivory.

CITES recommended on Sunday that countries with legal domestic ivory markets - which are not regulated by the convention as its remit is cross-border trade - start closing them down because they are seen as contributing to poaching. 

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