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Saving Africa's giants

CITES CoP17 starts in Sandton on Saturday and will have far-reaching consequences for African plants and animals. None will be more important than the decision on whether or not to maintain the global ban on the trade in ivory and rhino horn.

South Africa is expected to push for limited legal trading. Part of their argument is that the money raised can be put in a kitty to fight the illegal trade, which has led to the massacre of elephants and rhino on the continent.

This opinion is backed by some respected conservationists. They believe the trade can then be regulated, that the flow of legal horn and ivory will cripple a black market trade driven by greed, "status" and corruption.

They argue that, if these great beasts are to be saved, there is no time to wait for education programmes to take hold; that the Far East's appetite for white decorations and imagined health benefits will be fed for as long as these creatures survive. At the rate they are being killed, it will not be long.

Others believe the only way to halt the slaughter and save the animals from extinction is to maintain the current ban. When the ban was lifted in 2008 to allow some African countries to sell a stockpile, illegal trading soared by 71%.

Lifting the ban would also make the trade even more difficult to police: authorities are struggling to catch perpetrators now, when any possession is illegal. How would officials be able to distinguish between legal and illegal items?

Corruption at many levels makes regulation nigh impossible. And the political will to do so effectively has been questioned.

The conference must weigh the benefits to communities and the continent: does having healthy, growing herds contribute to attracting world tourism and ecological balance, or is there more money in selling stockpiles?

When the talks end on October 5, the final decision must – at any cost – save Africa's precious giants.

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