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updated 3/2/2012 4:51:05 PM ET 2012-03-02T21:51:05

A spike in the poaching of elephants and rhinos has become so alarming that experts are debating a controversial plan to permit the legalized trade of ivory.

Renewed interest in the idea comes in the aftermath of a massacre of nearly 450 elephants in Northern Cameroon -- killed primarily for their valuable tusks.

Global economic and political turmoil has helped to make ivory a coveted and pricey commodity. Poaching is only escalating because of that in many African countries.

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“We have been tracking the increase of elephant poaching with concern,” Kevin Bewick, head of Anti-Poaching Intelligence Group Southern Africa, told Discovery News.

“Sadly, ivory is a very desirable item in the Far East,” he added. “Intelligence from the region reports that there is a definite trade of ivory for small arms, and also funds for liberation movements, much the same as happened with UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) when it was at war with MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola).”


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Once the ivory goes on the black market in Asia, it fetches high prices. In China, bracelets and earrings routinely cost $300 and more.

In addition to use for jewelry, musical instruments and other objects, ivory -- when ground and ingested -- is thought to be a cure-all by some people. Traditional medicinal practices in countries like Vietnam hold that ground rhino horn treats everything from a lackluster love life to cancer. The horns, however, are just largely composed of the protein keratin, which is the chief component of human hair, fingernails and animal hooves.

Nevertheless, demand for ivory continues, to the point that some individuals and groups have suggested that governments flood the market with existing ivory, to lessen its value.

South African officials from the Department of Environmental Affairs last year also commissioned a study to determine whether or not legalizing trade in ivory could reduce poaching.

The idea has received widespread support from ranchers who are raising rhinos for their horns, wildlife safari hunts and for other purposes. Many of these ranchers have themselves been the victims of poachers, who have illegally killed rhinos and other animals on the ranches.

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In defense of legalizing the ivory trade, Pelham Jones, a spokesman with the South Africa Private Rhino Owners Association, said, “What pays, stays. What is able to produce long-term economic yield will be protected and preserved.”

Game reserve manager Alan Weyer also believes that current laws concerning the trade should be revisited. Weyer explained that as long as crime syndicates can continue to kill the animals and make money or earn valuable trade items from their efforts, poaching will continue.

But Bewick countered that past attempts at legalizing the ivory trade “have never stopped poaching.” He believes that “only strong enforcement and security presence in an area can counter poaching.” Bewick quickly, however, added that many central African countries have “extremely low budgets for enforcement activities, and very large areas to police.”

This perhaps explains the unprecedented decision on Wednesday to unleash a military offensive against poachers in Northern Cameroon at the site of the recent elephant bloodbath. Cameroon’s Defense Minister and Forests and Wildlife Minister authorized the offensive. Over 100 government soldiers are now in the park to secure Cameroon’s national territory, local people and the area’s elephants.

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Caroline Behringer, a WWF spokesperson, told Discovery News that both her organization and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade-monitoring network of WWF and IUCN, are “providing assistance to rangers, criminal investigators, prosecutors, and customs authorities in both Africa and Asia.” She said efforts are also underway “to try and stem demand in Asia” for ivory horns.

The WWF and other conservation groups are also now awaiting the results of this week’s military action in Cameroon, to see if it stops the current poaching and leads to longer term effective protection of elephants in the region. If it does not, officials from Cameroon and other countries may revisit the proposal to legalize full or limited trading of ivory.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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