The Herald (Harare)
RATIONALITY is starting to enter the environmental debate on the African elephant, largely because African countries were allowed to work out a common position at the recent Cites meeting.
By restricting the debate to Africans, the "bunny-huggers" of Europe and North America lost their influence. Having shot out or removed to little parks their own most dangerous animals, these "bunny-huggers" have developed a most peculiar idea of wildlife, especially for Africa.
It is difficult to come to any conclusion other than that they see African people as a nuisance. If the entire African population vanished, except for a few people living in huts to provide picturesque photographs, plus of course a few more to cook and clean for tourists, they would probably be a lot happier.
African countries were likely to be more sensible and Zimbabwe's Minister of Environment and Tourism Cde Francis Nhema found it was possible to reach a compromise between countries hammered by poaching and countries that must cull elephants or see massive environmental destruction.
Led by Kenya, there is a group of African countries whose elephants are at such a high risk from poaching that they wanted a total ban on all trade in ivory.
We sympathise. But we believe that such a ban would be impossible to enforce and could lead to even more illegal trade. The demand for ivory is so high that a total ban is just likely to drive up prices of poached ivory. We have seen this with rhino horn.
The other group of African countries, mainly in Southern Africa, have managed to contain poaching and are faced with rapidly rising elephant populations. Unless something is done to reduce numbers there could be serious environmental collapse, as has happened in large areas in the past.
Ecologists know that elephants have only one natural predator -- man -- and that they have evolved a breeding cycle over the last few million years to cope with the successive predation of Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens.
So regardless of whether there is a ban on ivory trade, Southern Africans are going to have to hunt elephant.
The Southern Africans argue further that communities that live with or near elephants, and bear the brunt of danger and seeing their crops destroyed, have a right to benefit from whatever controlled hunting is permitted.
And there is a general belief that people who benefit from a resource are likely to go to great lengths to protect that resource and prevent others from stealing it.
Feeding a market with legal ivory, coupled with intense action against poaching, should in time make poaching very uneconomic with the risks outweighing the benefits.
Most African environment ministries agree with these arguments; furthermore the Southern Africans appreciate the special problems other African countries face. So sensible discussion was always likely to lead to a deal.
The most important part of the deal is not so much the agreement that Southern Africans can make a one-off sale of raw ivory and can continue to allow trophy hunting.
Of greater importance for the future is the agreement to set up an African Elephant Fund to ensure that any African state can set up and manage internal ivory control systems where these are not in place.
Once every elephant tusk leaving Africa can be accounted for, it will be very easy to see if ivory appearing on the world market is legal or illegal.
This, coupled with a regular supply of legal ivory to satisfy genuine and legitimate buyers, should kill poaching.
A similar system is now working out well for another great African resource, diamonds. Such an arrangement does require all producers and most consumers to be willing to implement the system, but this is not impossible.
We hope the African deal brokered by Cde Nhema can now be allowed a fair chance of working and, as all clauses are implemented, we hope to see even more rationality in the debate over ivory trade.
This will benefit both the elephants and the Africans who live with them.