Only Option or Elephantine Overkill?
by Robert Woodrow, Emotional Arguments Don’t Help Wildlife Conservation
Editor’s Note: Robert Woodrow is a retired international correspondent, magazine editoreditorialist and columnist writing chiefly on politics and economics. He has been a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica, Asiaweek (a Time Inc. magazine), Reader’s Digest and numerous other publications, chiefly in Asia. For a time he worked for the Economist Intelligence Unit. In opinion pieces, Robert Woodrow writes from the point of view of a non-religious libertarian conservative. He approaches most issues from the position of a sceptic. Though sometimes labeled a contrarian, he applies rigorous standards of logic to unpopular stances. For direct news reporting, his commentary is invariably balanced with opposing views and is fact-checked from multiple sources. For more details on his outlook on national and international affairs, click on http://robertwoodrow.com
There are too many African elephants. The continent can’t support them all. Numbers are rapidly rising toward three-quarters of a million. They live in closely related all-female herds with their young; old bulls are solitary and young ones form loose bands. Overpopulation degrades vegetation and endangers other animals in wildlife reserves. But when the South African National Parks department announced a cull last week, the outcry was predictable. How could you do that to such majestic beasts? Anyone who cries out in anguish like that must come up with an alternative, and there is none.
Relocation, hugely expensive, only postpones the problem, because numbers become unsustainable elsewhere too. Performing vasectomies on hundreds of four-ton bulls would soon eat up the agency’s budget, as would darting fertile females regularly with birth-control hormones. Anyway, both practices destroy the highly structured “society” of this most social of mammals. So an exploding cartridge will be fired into the brain of every single member of selected herds, killing the matriarch and her sisters, daughters and nieces, plus adolescents of both sexes and new-born calves. A scientifically determined number of solitary bulls will also be dispatched.
Howls of protest reverberate. Elephants are a so-called charismatic species like pandas, polar bears and tigers. No one cares about rats, pigs and sheep. Furthermore, like chimps and dolphins, elephants are considered “intelligent.” Claims are made that they exhibit “emotions” like sorrow and mirth. They certainly have remarkable memories.
But any government that protests the cull had better think carefully first. Are Brazil, Argentina, Australia and the United States prepared to accept these herds when their own ecological balance is already delicate? Are European countries prepared to hand-feed them in wildlife parks? Are donations to be collected from animal lovers to buy farms and ranches that will eventually also be overpopulated? Don’t ask other African countries. However much lip-service they give to conservation, they really regard elephants as pests.
There is only one alternative: culling people. The global human population this month passed 6.7 billion. It will grow to at least 9.5 billion, probably more, before it stabilizes. The extra 3 billion or so will need land for habitation and production of food. Unless we are prepared to cull our own species, we must concentrate on preserving biodiversity and thinking less about biomass. As long as there are sufficient individuals of each species to sustain a viable gene pool, populations can decline sharply without loss of genetic diversity. Elephants, if they could think, would have to get used to the idea. There is no alternative. It’s us or them. We get most of their range for agriculture and grazing and they get small managed wildlife reserves.
But that raises a question. What is to be done with the tusks? And not just from the beasts felled by South African marksmen. Trade in ivory is illegal. Every year about African 12,000 elephants die of old age, leaving 24,000 tusks on the savanna to be collected by game wardens and stored in bulging warehouses. The African elephant population had been reduced by 50% in less than ten years when ivory was legal and poaching profitable.
The trade stopped one day in November 1989. All it took was a vote by national delegations to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. By 76 to 11, with 16 abstentions, the vote outlawed all exports and imports of tusks as well as objects crafted from them. Southern African governments that were successfully managing their stocks were outvoted by an alliance of Western governments influenced by stop-the-slaughter activists and Central African governments that had shown themselves utterly incapable of controlling poachers in their game reserves.
Poaching stopped that day too. Overnight a tusk became less valuable than the bullet that killed the animal. Puzzled? Surely banning the trade created a shortage of the commodity, thereby raising prices, encouraging smuggling and providing incentives to poachers to pursue their profession with renewed vigor. But ivory is not like cocaine or rhinoceros horn. It is not a substance consumed furtively and repeatedly. There is no point in acquiring a figurine if you are afraid a policeman will come knocking because a neighbor saw it on your mantelpiece. Furthermore, Japan, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, the only significant importers, accepted the verdict they had opposed and agreed to punish any wholesaler who broke the law.
Carving workshops are not like opium-processing factories hidden in the forest. In Hong Kong, warehouses of ivory merchants were stacked to the rafters — enough to last centuries for local consumption (not banned) or for tourists willing to brave customs officials at both exit and entry points. Like Czarist railroad bonds, the tusks cannot be turned into cash, but having paid so much for them, owners won’t dump them. Why spend a week tracking down a fine bull, killing it, hacking out its tusks, transporting them to the coast and trying to sell through a middleman to a dealer in Hong Kong who already has too many?
That same year, the president of Kenya, surrounded by press photographers, ignited a gasoline-soaked mound of elephant tusks, all that remained of 1,800 slaughtered elephants. It was an empty gesture because the pile was worthless. No dealer with any business sense would have even attended an auction.
Banning the trade was not the wisest decision, because ivory is a renewable resource and 700,000 African elephants will go on producing it regardless of rulings made in Switzerland. The decision meant that ivory could be freely purchased, carved and put on sale in Hong Kong, but not exported. What ensured that the elephant slaughter ended was 474 tons of raw ivory (from 70,000 dead elephants) in stockpiles there. And there was nowhere to ship it. Japan, the final destination of perhaps 70% of ivory before the ban, outlawed imports, which were used to make personal seals pressed to legal documents, the Japanese equivalent of a signature (they now make the seals out of bone). Illicit imports into Taiwan or China for figurine carving are better sourced clandestinely from Hong Kong stocks than Kenyan elephants. An elephant tusk is not something to be smuggled past customs in your underwear.
In technical terms, what the CITES signatories did was shift Loxodonta africana from the 1973 treaty’s Appendix II, which allows controlled trade, to Appendix I, which forbids all forms of commerce in a designated animal or its body parts. Of Asia’s Elephants maximus, the only other species in the order Proboscidea, there survive about 30,000 in the wild and 12,000 domestic animals. With unimpressive tusks by comparison with the African beast — and usually entirely absent in the female — the Asian elephant had been rarely troubled by poachers for decades before the ban.
When the CITES votes were in, dedicated conservation specialists who had spent their professional lives saving the African elephant wept with joy, did they not? No, almost to a man they had fought to keep the ivory trade alive and flourishing. That was a paradox for many. Like most controversies about the environment, ivory was, and still is, too complex for the clearcut solution people prefer. What the scientific conservationists objected to was the ecologically slipshod way it was done.
A much sounder method had been the verge of proving itself — a system of quotas for culling elephants (surviving range shown) that addressed the needs of conservationists, national park administrators and African governments, and at the same time accommodated the livelihoods of ivory carvers, wholesalers of tusks and retailers of artifacts. And the policing burden fell on importing countries.
While measures like South Africa’s culling decision keep elephant populations stable, the ivory mountains do nobody any good. Efficiently regulated exports would have preserved ancient and honorable artistic traditions. Ivory carving could be revived without putting outlaw killers back into business. Before the ban, importing countries had already eliminated direct trade in unregistered tusks. CITES had devised a system using invisible markers to identify individual tusks to ensure that worked ivory was of legal origin.
It is absurd to waste an elegant, nearly indestructible commodity that has been prized down through the centuries. Since elephants have high fertility, relatively low mortality and no natural predators except man, numbers recovered quickly. The animals encroached on farmland and got shot by farmers who left them, tusks and all, to rot. One way or another, numbers will stabilize at the maximum level man will tolerate, a limit that, outside of national parks, will steadily decline as the need for more agricultural and pastoral land takes up the elephants’ range. A wise and responsible world would eradicate elephant poaching while properly managing export quotas to earn revenue for African governments. To save elephant it is not necessary to kill the ivory industry.