The three-day conference kicked off Monday in Huang National Park, the country’s largest wildlife park in southwestern Zimbabwe. Representatives from 16 African countries, as well as Japan and China, major ivory consumers, will attend the rally, officials said.
Last week, ambassadors from some European Union countries, Britain, the United States and Canada, were guided through heavy security vaults in Harare, filled with piles of ivory, to win international support for the legal sale of ivory.
Zimbabwe’s attempt to sell those ivory is controversial, with many conservation groups opposing it, saying the sale of ivory encourages pachyderm prey.
The conference “sends a alarming signal to the Predators and Criminals Syndicate that elephants are mere commodities, and that the ivory trade could be resumed, which could pose a threat to the species,” said a coalition of 50 wildlife and animal rights organizations around the world. A joint statement issued on Monday.
In 1997 and 2008, South African countries were twice allowed to sell their ivory stock to Japan and China, and those limited sales led to “a sharp rise” in poaching across the continent, the letter said.
“Legalizing the ivory business with the approval of another ‘one-time’ sale could have similarly catastrophic consequences,” the groups said.
Zimbabwe argues that its elephant population is growing rapidly between 5% and 8% per year, a rate that suggests it is not sustainable. Zimbabwe says it desperately needs funds from the sale of ivory to manage the elephant population, which it says has grown into a “dangerous” form.
Park officials say Zimbabwe’s estimated 100,000 elephants are twice the carrying capacity of its national park. Overflowing elephants are destroying trees and shrubs that are vital to them and other wildlife.
Neighboring Botswana has more than 130,000 elephants, the largest in the world. Zimbabwe and Botswana together have about 50% of the world’s elephants. The two countries have said they are struggling to cope with the growing numbers.
Opposition is coming from Kenya and other members of the African Elephant Coalition, whose 32 members are mostly from East and West Africa, where there are fewer elephants. They argue that the resumption of legal international trade in ivory, even for a single auction, would increase poaching.
CITES banned the international ivory trade in 1989 to prevent poaching. In addition to banning the sale of ivory, CITES also imposed restrictions on the sale of wild elephants caught in Zimbabwe and Botswana in 2019, a move that pleased some conservationists but discouraged officials from struggling to manage crowded parks.
There is a growing illegal trade in ivory where international syndicates fund poachers to kill elephants and cut their ivory. Ivory is then smuggled abroad, where there is a demand for ivory for jewelry and trinkets.
Increased hunting and habitat loss have further endangered Africa’s elephant population, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said last year.
Zimbabwe and Botswana have said they are not equipped to deal with poachers without money from the sale of ivory, especially since a travel ban on COVID-19 has reduced tourism revenues since 2020.