Ivory Trade Threatens
'New' Elephant Species
By Alistair Bell

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 southern Africa.
"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 known.
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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