For the first time in almost a decade, ivory went on sale legally Tuesday when the African country of Namibia auctioned seven metric tons of elephant tusks exclusively to Chinese and Japanese buyers.
The much-criticized sale, which raised $1.18 million, heralded two weeks of rolling auctions that will put 108 metric tons of ivory — the equivalent of more than 10,000 dead elephants — under the gavel in a one-time sale to the Far East, where the product is used mainly in traditional medicines and for official seals to stamp formal documents.
Wildlife groups and other African nations fear that the controversial sell-off could breathe life back into the ivory trade, banned in 1989, and trigger a resurgence of the poaching that devastated Africa's elephant populations in the 1970s and 1980s.
Julian Newman, campaigns director with the Environmental Investigation Agency, argued that the move could once again open the floodgates to poaching, which reduced Africa's total elephant population from five million in the 1930s to about 600,000 today.
"This [auction], coupled with a lack of sufficient checks in importing countries such as China and instability in some African range states, could easily drag us back to the dark and bloody days of the 1980s when we were seeing around 200 elephants killed by poachers each week," he said.
Conservationists argue that a lack of proper oversight will allow poachers to mix illegal and legal ivory and slip it past regulators, many of them corrupt.