Africa's endangered elephant population will vanish forever into ivory piano keys and chess pieces unless quick conservation steps are taken.
That is what delegates from more than 100 countries are discussing in Switzerland at a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.Sadly, some experts predict that the great lumbering African elephant, an unmatchable symbol of the wild, will survive only in zoos by the turn of the century. According to David Western of Wildlife Conservation International, the numbers of elephants are dropping fast.
Out of an elephant population numbering 1.3 million to 4 million a decade ago, there are no more than 600,000 left in Africa. Poaching is rampant, with 70,000 killed each year. Last month, a plane that crashed on takeoff from an Angola rebel camp was overloaded with ivory.
Some South Africans have been indicted on charges of smuggling rhino horn, skins of endangered animals, and assault rifles into the United States.
Delegates at the convention are searching for common ground between the East African demand for a complete ban on ivory and the South African desire for culled tusks. The latter means that selected hunting of elephants would be allowed.
Representatives from Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana argue that money from ivory helps to control poaching and that careful management actually increases herds. Zimbabwe, for instance, is said to earn $9 million a year by selling ivory from herds estimated at 52,000.
Representatives from the United States assert that anything less than a total ban on elephant hunting will encourage abuse.
A well-funded group of traders, mostly based in Hong Kong, are very disturbed at the propect of losing a bllion-dollar industry in carvings and jewelry.
Currently, the convention classifies elephants as "threatened species," while "endangered species" would constitute a total ban. The evidence clearly suggests the need for adopting a ban. It is the only way to guarantee a united world effort to save the elephant.
Unfortunately, the convention's rulings are non-binding and rely on international pressure for enforcement - usually an ineffective tool. A sense of global outrage will be necessary if the elephant is to survive.