Kruger National Park (South Africa), Dec. 27 (Reuters): In a dark storeroom in the Kruger National Park lies the booty of a jumbo environmental war: South Africa’s ivory collection.
“This is an asset,” said Kruger’s public relations manager William Mabasa as he pointed to the almost 5,000 pieces — nearly 37 tonnes — of the “white gold” stacked along wooden shelves.
Many conservationists would view the room as a ghastly chamber of horrors.
In November, animal rights groups had howled in protest when the 12th conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Chile gave South Africa tentative permission to auction 30 tonnes of ivory.
Neighbouring Botswana and Namibia were also given the conditional go-ahead to auction 20 and 10 tonnes respectively from their stockpiles.
The auctions cannot be held before May 2004 to give Cites a chance to monitor poaching and population trends.
Cites will not allow the sales if the monitoring networks detect an upsurge in the poaching of elephants — which is precisely what many conservationists and some elephant range states like Kenya believe is already happening.
They fear that poachers, anticipating fresh demand for a commodity that has been banned from the global market since 1989 — with the exception of “experimental sales” by Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana in 1999 — will try to build up supplies now in a bid to launder dirty ivory with the clean supplies. South Africa says it needs to unlock the value of its stockpile for badly needed conservation projects.
“The current South African government has many priorities — crime, health care, poverty — and so conservation really has to pay its way,” Mavuso Msimang, CEO of South Africa National Parks, said. “We need to sell this ivory for conservation.”
South Africa’s ivory room is a sight to behold.
Its 4,844 pieces of ivory — some tusks are broken up — have each been recorded meticulously and given a Cites number.
Access is extremely limited and the building’s description and precise location cannot be disclosed for security reasons. Only two senior park officials are allowed to open the door — and only if they are both present as they each have different keys.
The biggest tusk, at about 6 feet 6 inches in length and 60 kg in weight, must have belonged to a truly massive animal.
Much of the ivory has been collected in the bush from the carcasses of animals that died from natural causes.
Some of the tusks sat in the bush for a long time and have a weathered look, their surface browned and roughened to the point that it looks almost like tree bark.
The ivory was reaped from controversial culls once used to control Kruger’s elephants. No cull has been conducted since 1994 and there are concerns that the population is now too big for the habitat available — even in a park the size of Israel.