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Elephants use tusks for stripping trees, moving objects, fighting and display. Humans have other uses for tusks – or ivory – such as jewellery, piano keys and billiard balls.
Although ivory has been valued f or centuries, large-scale killing of elephants for ivory did not begin until about 1900. By the 1970s and 1980s, poaching became a serious problem.
Between 1979 and 1992, the numbers of elephants plunged from 1.3 million to about 600,000. Elephants were in danger. Those protecting the elephants chose a simple solution: ban the sale of ivory, and the poachers will find it difficult to make a living.
The ban on ivory sales worked. Elephant populations grew fast in Southern Africa. But they also began to damage crops and chase villagers.
This created a problem for those protecting wildlife. Angry villagers were demanding that elephants should be taken away from areas near humans – even killed. One solution was to let local people have control of the way the elephants were managed. But how could you make villagers want to look after the elephants?
So the authorities began to allow the sale of ivory as a way for the villagers to raise money. This gave them an interest in managing the elephants.
It seemed to make sense. If elephants were no longer endangered in southern Africa, shouldn't African countries be allowed to sell ivory to fund this sort of conservation program?
In 1998 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lifted the ban on all trade in ivory. Money from the sale of African ivory is being used to help people live alongside the elephant.
John Newby of the World Wide Fund for Nature says that preservation alone is not enough. "It isn't creating the incentives needed by ordinary Africans to see elephants as a valuable resource and not just a pest," says Newby.
So far it has been the tourist industry – airlines and hotels – that has made money from African wildlife. Now that local people can sell ivory again, the elephants are at last bringing wealth to their human neighbours. By Simon Baines
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