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Tribune Special
Handling of ivory stocks in dark
Tripti Nath
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, October 6
Ivory or white gold, the most sought after asset of a tusker, is not burnt in India after its death. It becomes government property and is stocked in godowns run by state wildlife departments.

About 400 elephants die ever year and 20 are poached, according to estimates of the ministry of environment and forests. These include natural and accidental deaths and those caused by revenge killings.

The Wildlife Protection Act, in place for 35 years, is silent on the eventual management of ivory. In case an elephant dies a natural death or in an accident, the ivory is kept in government godowns. Barring the state wildlife authorities, nobody knows what happens to the ivory—whether it remains in tact, given its huge demand in the domestic and the international market.

The Act prohibits the sale and purchase of ivory. While a kilogram of ivory fetches Rs 20,000 in the domestic market, its value increases manifold in the international market.

Under the law, a person convicted for possessing ivory (not covered by ownership certificate) has to face punishment up to seven years.

Ashok Kumar, vice-chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), a Delhi-based wildlife conservation NGO, says Japan is the main buyer for Asian and African ivory. Ivory is also in great demand in China, Macao and the two Koreas. Little wonder then that cases of elephant poisoning are reported from time to time.

Kumar who has tipped the police on several occasions leading to seizures of various wildlife articles says there is no clear government policy on what should be done to the ivory once a tusker dies.

“It gets stolen and gets into international trade. I know of cases in Delhi, Karnataka and Meghalaya where ivory has gone missing from government godowns. On October 23 last year, the Delhi police seized from the wildlide department godown on Ridge road a large amount of ivory, Shahtoosh wool, reptile skin bags, belts and fur coats.”

He said in the late 1990s, Kenya destroyed its stocks of ivory. “That served as a deterrent to poachers. Recently, Ghana has done the same.” Suparna Baksi Ganguly, vice-president of Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, a Bangalore-based animal welfare organisation, says the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 is silent on the eventual management of ivory. ``There is enormous disconnect between what is happening and what should ideally happen. There should be an annual public audit of ivory stocks maintained by each state.''

A.N. Prashad, director of Project Elephant, ministry of environment and forests, says the state governments are the real managers of ivory. “I'm not denying the demand for ivory in the market. The fact that 20 tuskers are poached every year points to the demand for ivory. But if an NGO can enumerate even five cases where it has been proved that ivory has been stolen from government godowns and recirculated in the market, it is a genuine fear. Otherwise it is a baseless charge and merely an apprehension. A single case in 10 years should not be a cause for alarm or panic.''

Prashad, however, favours the need for transperancy in the maintenance of stocks of ivory. He said the government had in the late 1990s issued a circular to the state governments, suggesting that they destroy ivory. Prashad, however, does not know what became of the circular.

But WTI vice-chairman says that state governments have never destroyed ivory stocks.

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