Low ivory prices at first legal auction in 9 years

OSLO (Reuters) - The first U.N.-approved auction of elephant ivory in almost a decade gave lower-than-expected prices in Namibia on Tuesday but wildlife experts disagreed over whether that would discourage poachers.

The Namibian government sold 7.2 tonnes of stockpiled ivory for $1.2 million, or an average price of $164 a kilo, to Chinese and Japanese bidders in the first of four auctions by southern African countries to be spread over two weeks.

Most experts had predicted far higher prices in the rare sale, the first since 1999 when the average price was $110 a kilo in an auction limited to Japanese buyers.

“The reason was probably that the Namibian ivory was not the best quality ... some of it is weathered and cracked,” said Willem Wijnstekers, head of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) who is overseeing the sales.

Wijnstekers told Reuters by telephone that the prices might be a sign that Asian ivory carvers had moved into different businesses since a 1989 global ban on exports, or perhaps that financial turmoil was denting Asian demand even for exotic commodities.

And he said that lower prices might help curb poaching.

“The higher the price the higher the incentive” for poachers, he said. Low prices “make it much more risky.”

But the International Fund for Animal Welfare -- which has estimated that black market ivory sells in Asia for $880 a kilo -- said the legal sales will stoke poaching by making it hard to identify legal or illegal goods.

“What’s important for poachers is to know that there is a market,” Michael Wamithi, elephant program director at IFAW, told Reuters.

And the Environmental Investigation Agency, which seeks to expose wildlife crimes, said in a statement that the sales “could open the floodgates to illegal poaching.”

One expert said Namibia had been expecting $300 per kilo from the sale, from which proceeds go to elephant conservation. The ivory was sold from stocks and from killings of ‘problem elephants’, for instance that trample crops.

Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa will also hold auctions in the next two weeks, totaling almost 100 tonnes, in exemptions from a 1989 U.N. export ban. They argue that elephant numbers have risen in recent years due to conservation.

Elephants, the world’s largest land mammals, are under pressure in many parts of Africa from poaching, loss of habitats to farms and towns, pollution and climate change. Numbers have fallen to 470,000-685,000 against millions decades ago.

Wijnstekers said it was hard to predict prices at the other auctions. “Some buyers may be holding back,” he said. Still, he said he had hoped competition between Japanese and Chinese buyers would do more to bolster prices.

Last week the Internet auctioneer eBay Inc. said it would institute a global ban on the sale of ivory products after a conservation group found 4,000 illegal elephant ivory listings on its site.

Editing by Richard Balmforth