South African National Parks (SANParks) controversially auctioned off 47 metric tonnes (mt) of stockpiled ivory on 6 November, earning the government conservation agency US$6.7 million.
The auction concluded a "once-off" sale of ivory approved by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) by four southern African countries - South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe - a process condemned as "irresponsible" by several conservation groups.
The series of auctions, beginning in October, sold a total of 101mt of ivory, mainly to Chinese and Japanese buyers, netting a total of US$15 million.
During the 1980s, poaching slashed the elephant population in Africa by half, from an estimated 1.2 million to just 600,000. Demand for ivory from the Far East for artwork, musical instruments, ornamental items and jewellery largely fuelled the slaughter.
In response, CITES listed the African elephant on Appendix I in 1989, effectively prohibiting all international trade in ivory. In 1997, the elephant populations of the four southern African countries were listed on Appendix II, allowing trade with special permission from CITES.
Appendices I, II and III to the Convention are lists of species afforded different levels or types of protection from over-exploitation. CITES has twice approved limited, conditional one-off sales of ivory from the four countries since 1997. In the last sale in 1999, almost 50mt of ivory was purchased by Japan for US$5 million.
"This is a bid for conservation," Dr David Mabunda, CEO of SANParks, said in his opening speech at the auction on 6 November. According to CITES regulations, all proceeds from the sale must be used exclusively for elephant conservation and community development programmes within or adjacent to the elephant ranges.
Mabunda stressed the importance of securing additional funds for conservation, and indicated that the proceeds of the auction would be spent on employing additional game rangers, buying more vehicles, and erecting elephant-proof fences where needed.
The fences are a costly but important measure guarding against elephant intrusions into human communities. According to CITES, recent studies showed that over 312,000 elephants lived in the four sale-approved countries. Crop raiding by elephants and related human injuries have become increasingly frequent in these countries, and are a major issue in elephant conservation.
But the CITES approach has come in for heavy criticism. "Allowing this exorbitant amount of ivory to flood the market, considering the level of elephant poaching occurring today, is just plain irresponsible," said Michael Wamithi, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Wamithi's sentiments are echoed by a number of conservation organisations and elephant specialists, who believe that the auction will open the way for poachers to flood the market with illegal ivory.
The CITES secretariat is monitoring Chinese and Japanese domestic trade controls to ensure that traders do not take the opportunity to sell ivory of illegal origin. SANParks sent a delegation to the two countries earlier this year to determine whether they have sufficient measures in place to monitor where the legal ivory ends up, and to prevent its re-export.
However, South Africa's largest and most vocal animal rights organisation, Animal Rights Africa (ARA), accuses both CITES and the South African government of being naïve in believing that the dispersal of legally processed ivory throughout Japan and China can be monitored.
"This is simply an impossible task, particularly as it is well known that organised crime syndicates in both Japan and China are deeply involved in the ivory trade," ARA said in statement.
The claim was borne out by a recent report by the wildlife trade-monitoring network, TRAFFIC, which implicated Asian-run organised crime syndicates based in Africa for the growing illegal trade in elephant ivory.
TRAFFIC's report is based on an analysis of almost 12,400 ivory seizure cases from 82 countries, recorded since 1989 in the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) – the world's largest database of elephant product seizure records.
The study identified the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Cameroon as the top three sources of illegal ivory.
"With myriad conflict zones, Central Africa is currently haemorrhaging ivory, and these three countries are major conduits for trafficking illicit ivory from the region to international markets, particularly in Asia," said Tom Milliken, director of TRAFFIC's Africa programme and the principal author of the study.
Milliken's observation relates to another criticism of the sale, which is that it is likely to undermine elephant conservation in other African countries.
Though the southern African countries involved may have healthy populations and robust management systems in place, Central, East and West Africa are not in the same position.
SANParks' Mabunda acknowledged the concern, suggesting that southern Africa's contribution to the continent should come in the form of "information and technical exchanges".
He also conceded a final point by the sale's detractors: the science of elephant monitoring carries such a large margin of error that it is almost impossible for existing monitoring systems, such as the CITES-run MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants), to detect anything less than an enormous change in population levels.
"I agree with the statement that the margin of error is not something to write home about. There's always a challenge in terms of making sure that we know what is happening out there," Mabunda admitted, adding that he hoped DNA-tracing tools would be available in the future to trace the origin of any ivory in the market.
After these shipments have been completed, no new proposals for further sales from the four countries concerned can be considered by CITES during a resting period of nine years.
"This impending moratorium on international ivory trade presents a critical opportunity for the international community to focus time and energy on elephant conservation initiatives," said Jason Bell-Leask, Director of IFAW's Southern Africa Regional Office.
"We need to be vigilant if we want to succeed in maintaining the integrity of elephant populations in Africa and Asia for coming generations. The future of elephants is clearly in our hands at this point."