Zimbabwe has sought international support to be allowed to sell its stockpile of seized ivory, saying the $600 million it expects to earn is urgently needed for the conservation of its rapidly growing elephant population.
The southern African nation opened a three-day international conference on Monday at Hwange National Park, the country's largest wildlife park, to try to win international support for its campaign to be allowed to sell its stockpile.
If Zimbabwe is not permitted to sell off its 130 tons of ivory, estimated to be worth $600 million, officials warn it may quit the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.
Representatives from 16 African countries, as well as Japan and China, major consumers of ivory, are to attend the conference, said officials.
Last week, envoys from some European Union countries, Britain, the United States and Canada were guided through heavily guarded vaults in Harare that are filled with piles of elephant tusks to win international support for legal sales of the ivory.
Zimbabwean officials have appealed to the EU and other countries to support the sale of ivory which has been banned since 1989 by CITES, the international body that monitors endangered species.
"We don't see anything wrong with another one off sale in this COVID-19 pandemic era," said Fulton Mangwanya, ZimParks Director-General, during a briefing to EU officials.
"Conservation is indeed an expensive venture. We kindly request the support of (the) EU for Zimbabwe to be allowed a one off sale of our national ivory stock."
Zimbabwe argues that its elephant population is growing rapidly at between 5% to 8% per year, a rate it says is unsustainable.
Authorities have said they desperately need the funds from the sales of the ivory to manage the elephant population, which they say has grown to a “dangerous” size.
Zimbabwe’s estimated 100,000 elephants are double the carrying capacity of its national parks, say parks officials.
The overcrowded elephants are destroying the trees and shrubs that are vital for them and other wildlife.
"You find one area like Hwange National Park, which is the size of Belgium, if we can illustrate, currently has a heard of 50,000 elephants whereas its carrying capacity should only be 15,000," conservationist Emmanuel Fundira told The Associated Press.
"So we really have a problem."
A coalition of 50 wildlife and animal rights organizations from across the globe said in a statement on Monday Zimbabwe’s conference “is sending a dangerous signal to poachers and criminal syndicates that elephants are mere commodities, and that ivory trade could be resumed, heightening the threat to the species.”
Southern African countries have twice been permitted to sell off their ivory stocks to Japan and China in 1997 and 2008 and those limited sales resulted in “a sharp escalation” in poaching across the continent, said the statement.