- SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters)
- A shy breed of elephant found in equatorial forests and only recently
recognized as a separate species is at risk from a resumption of ivory
trade sought by southern African countries, a leading elephant expert said.
- The U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species will decide whether to relax a ban on the ivory trade when it meets
in the Chilean capital between November 3-15.
- The sale of ivory was prohibited worldwide in 1989 because
elephant populations were plummeting but the ban was eased in 1997 to allow
"one-off" auctions from ivory stockpiles.
- Now, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana
say their elephant herds are blossoming again and want another loosening
of the ban to allow them to sell ivory.
- But elephant expert Kate Payne, from Cornell University
in New York, says renewed ivory trade would endanger the reclusive African
forest elephant, even though its habitat is far away from the savanna of
- "They are vulnerable to whatever the situation is
and they could all disappear. You could lose a whole species if trade is
resumed in a completely different part of Africa," Payne said in an
interview in Chile this week.
- Payne, an acoustic biologist, is highly respected by
conservationists for discovering in the 1980s that elephants "talk"
to each other through low-frequency rumbling noises mostly inaudible to
humans. Her work on deciphering the songs of humpback whales is also well
- JUNGLE POACHERS
- She said even a limited trade in southern African ivory
would encourage poachers to kill forest elephants, which have straighter,
more valuable tusks than other species, in the thick jungles of Central
and West Africa.
- "Once an international market exists, the incentive
for poaching is increased and the incentive is greatest in countries where
law enforcement is weakest," she said.
- Political violence and weak central governments plague
many of the countries where the forest elephant lives, including the Central
African Republic, Ivory Coast and Congo.
- Africa's 600,000 elephants were thought to be a single
species until research was published last year which showed the savanna
elephant from southern Africa and the smaller forest elephant diverged
genetically some 2.6 million years ago.
- Less is known about the estimated 200,000 forest elephants
because of their timidity and the remoteness of their habitat. One researcher
spent 10 years investigating forest elephants but only ever caught sight
of them three times, Payne said.
- "Physically it is difficult to see them and they
are quite secretive as well and they live in smaller families than the
savanna elephants," she said.
- Tusks from the male of the new species are prized by
illicit ivory dealers in the Far East.
- "It is a bigger tusk. It's dense and heavy and the
ivory carvers prefer to use heavy ivory," Payne said.
- She will present video and sound recordings to try to
persuade delegates to the conference in Chile to protect elephants, which
she said form loving family units and show compassion and sense of community.
- A video of forest elephants at a jungle clearing in the
Central African Republic shows more than 100 elephants grieving over a
dead calf. One elephant unrelated to the calf tried to lift the dead infant
back on its feet 57 times.
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