, DOHA, Mar 22 – A bid by Tanzania to sell 80.5 tonnes of stockpiled ivory to Japan and China was rejected on Monday, as experts pointed to a surge in illegal trafficking driven by Asian-based organised crime.
After a tense debate, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) also slapped down a separate proposal to downlist Tanzania\’s elephants to a lower level of protection.
"We are sitting on a treasure that we are not allowed to use to help our population, to help the poor build schools and roads," said Stanslaus Komba, from Tanzania\’s ministry of natural resources.
Similar measures sought by Zambia were to be considered and likely voted on later on Monday, at the CITES meeting in the Qatari capital Doha,
The organisation\’s secretariat had recommended the rejection of Tanzania\’s pleas, citing poor enforcement against poaching and illegal sales domestically.
The bids from both countries come on the heels of a dramatic surge in seizures of illegal ivory in 2008 and especially 2009, mostly in Asia.
"Large-scale ivory seizures are becoming not only more frequent but larger in size," pointing to increased involvement by organised crime, said Tom Milliken, head of the Elephant Trade Information System.
In Africa, the countries most directly involved in the traffic have been Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while in Asia activity was particularly high in Thailand, he said.
Some 25 tonnes of the precious material — culled from an estimated 2,600 elephants — were confiscated last year, mainly in Asia, according to wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC.
The number of animals actually illegally butchered is probably much higher, experts say.
Poachers have taken to using heavy arms to carry out military-style operations, leaving local law enforcement outmatched, they say.
Except for populations in four southern African nations, African elephants in two dozen other range states are listed on CITES Appendix I, which bans cross-border trade.
Tanzania sought a downlisting to the less restrictive Appendix II, which allows commerce if it is monitored and deemed sustainable.
The one-off sale would have netted about 13 million dollars (9.5 million euros), said TRAFFIC. Komba said the stock is worth 20 million dollars.
The last such sale in 2008 by Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe set the clock running on a nine-year moratorium on international ivory sales, agreed upon at the last CITES meeting in 2007.
The recent surge in seizures has caused officials to question whether one-off sales stimulate illegal trade rather than stem it, as was once thought.
Komba rejected allegations that Tanzania has been a major vector for poaching, saying his country had been used as a transit country for illegal trade.
"We have 800 kilometres (500 miles) of coastline and three major ports, and are surrounded by six landlocked countries that depend on us for imports and exports," he said.
Organised crime networks use "dubious tricks" to make the contraband hard to detect, he added.
Conservation and wildlife groups applauded the decision.
"Governments made the right decision by rejecting Tanzania\’s proposals," said the WWF\’s head of species programme, Carlos Drews.
"It is not the right time to be approving ivory sales due to increased elephant poaching in central and western Africa."
Jason Bell-Leask, director for southern Africa for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: "The same logic must be applied to the Zambian proposal — downlisting and ivory sales must be rejected."
Both proposals by Tanzania fell well short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
In a separate proposal, some two dozen other African range countries are seeking to extend the moratorium on ivory trade to 20 years.