Selling Ivory to Save the Elephants
by John Frederick Walker
John Frederick Walker is the author of "Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants” a very recommendable book for African Indaba readers. Walker presents strong evidence that the current system’s ivory ban and elephant protection without culling when needed is a failure and he provides important, informative, and thought provoking material. The following article was published on John F Walker’s Blog
Ivory poaching is back, big time, and the Internet is awash with photos of bloodied tusks and elephant carcasses. In 2007, Kenyan wildlife officials counted 47 elephants killed by poachers. In 2008, the number jumped to 98. Estimates of the number of elephants now being poached across the African continent range as high as 37,000 a year. All this despite a ban on international trade in ivory that was enacted 20 years ago today. Why hasn't the ivory ban been effective? Mostly because it doesn't fit the reality of the situation.
In 1989, anti-ivory campaigners were riding a wave of worldwide revulsion at poaching that had halved the African elephant population over the previous decade. They took their cause to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the U.N.-administered convention that governs trade in endangered species. At the 1989 Conference of Parties in Lausanne, Switzerland, member countries ended more than a week of heated debate on Oct. 17. On a vote of 76 for, 11 against, and four abstentions, the African elephant was put on the list of species considered threatened with extinction. Inclusion prohibits all cross-border trade.
But there was a catch: Countries with well-managed populations could apply to CITES to have the status of their elephants declared to be less threatened. If they proved their case, they might be allowed to resume trade in ivory. Still, global trade in tusks had been banned, putting an end to the commerce that had been the curse of elephants for millennia. In the aftermath, elephant poaching in Africa declined. But then it grimly started climbing back, and today it is at disturbing levels, as recent seizures of huge amounts of poached ivory make clear.
Some conservationists say the problem with the ban has been lack of enforcement. Many African countries with elephant populations have unregulated domestic markets at which items made from poached ivory can be purchased and then smuggled out of country. There's little dispute that better policing is desperately needed.
Other advocates point to CITES-permitted legal ivory sales as the ban's major flaw. These sales have been authorized twice -- most recently in late 2008, when Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa were allowed to auction 100 tons of ivory collected from elephants that had died of natural causes. Those tusks went to Japan and China, which agreed not to re-export any ivory, and the $15 million raised went toward elephant conservation.
Ivory trade opponents -- including Kenya -- have long argued that legitimizing any trade in ivory, no matter how tightly controlled, sends the wrong message to poaching rings and feeds the demand for ivory. But TRAFFIC
, the joint WWF/IUCN wildlife trade monitoring network, says there's no hard evidence that these sales lead to more poaching or increased illegal trade in ivory. Enforcement issues and potential ivory sales are sure to dominate the CITES conference in Doha, Qatar, in March next year at which Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique are expected to submit proposals to sell their ivory stockpiles -- and set off alarmist media coverage.
But what's happening to elephants and their ivory is far more complex than the picture painted by most news organizations, which focus almost exclusively on elephant killings, giving the impression that these great creatures are being killed all over the continent. The truth is that ivory poaching is most widespread in African states saddled with civil wars and racked by humanitarian crises, riddled by corruption and lacking effective conservation -- of which Congo is an all-too-ghastly example. By contrast, elephant numbers are increasing in the stable countries of southern Africa, where anti-poaching efforts have had some effect. Botswana has 130,000 elephants [Ed. Note: probably over 150,000 by now], nearly a quarter of the entire continental population. In South Africa's Kruger National Park, officials have concluded they will have to turn to culling to keep their growing herds from altering the landscape of the New Jersey-sized refuge.
Add in another inescapable fact: Tens of tons of gleaming tusks are recovered annually from elephants that die of natural causes in Africa's parks and reserves. Not surprisingly, countries that are doing a good job of managing their elephant populations argue that they should be able to benefit from the sale of guilt-free tusks to raise badly needed funds for the conservation of their giants.
That's what the procedure for seeking an exemption to the ban and gaining permission to sell ivory stocks was supposed to address. The problem is that the possibility of these sales is revisited at every CITES conference, which means that legal buyers (currently, ivory traders and merchants in China and Japan) can never be certain of future supply. That keeps the black market alive, preventing legal ivory from undercutting illicit supplies and crippling organized poaching. It's estimated that 100 tons of ivory could be supplied each year from the natural mortality of Africa's elephants, an amount likely to meet Asian demand for this long-revered carving material. A tightly controlled but steady stream of legal ivory from countries with protected herds, coupled with strict policing of domestic African ivory markets, may sound like an unholy coupling of conservation policies -- but it just might work.
Through almost all of human history elephants have been regarded as mere bearers of treasure; now we find them far more important than the ivory they carry. That's why the ivory ban came into being 20 years ago, and why the international community will never return to a completely unregulated ivory trade. But if the ban's limitations aren't addressed, its provisions strengthened -- and new ideas incorporated -- we'll end up facing another 20 years of poaching, ivory trafficking and elephant killings.
Do ivory sales encourage elephant poaching?
The illegal killings of five elephants so far this year in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park have generated international furor and a spate of outraged reportage. The fact that their remains were found with their tusks hacked out—in a park that was notorious for out-of-control ivory poaching in the 1970s—has given rise to renewed talk of impending doom for the remaining herds in Africa. And, predictably, unprecedented attacks on how the nearly 20-year-old international ivory trade ban is being administered by the Geneva-based CITES Secretariat.
Patrick Omondi, species management coordinator for the Kenya Wildlife Service, is one of a number of conservationists and animal advocates convinced that the recent 60% rise in ivory poaching in his country can be blamed squarely on last year’s legal sale of over 100 tons of ivory from southern Africa. No one doubts that Omondi cares deeply about elephants. But is he, and those who agree with him, right? Almost certainly not—and that’s bad for elephants.
Here’s the background. The 2008 sale of tusks from Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa was only the second exception to a global ban on cross-border trade in ivory that took effect in 1990. It was conducted under the auspices of CITES and netted $15.4 million dollars. Approval for it came out of the Hague CITES meeting two years ago, at which African nations allowed four countries with growing, well-managed herds to profit from their conservation successes in a “one-off” sale—with restrictions. Only ivory from legitimate sources (natural deaths, problem animals) could be sold, and only to CITES-approved buyers (Japan and China), who agreed not to re-export it. Funds raised had to be used for elephant conservation and no further exports from countries involved in the sale would be permitted for an additional nine years.
But Omondi has been in I-told-you-so mode since the latest incidents in Tsavo. “What we warned would happen is happening,” he told the UK’s Telegraph. “This legal sale has restarted the demand for ivory, and illegal poachers and smugglers are back in business.”
The idea that any legal ivory sales will surely encourage poaching is the mantra of anti-ivory campaigners (and widely repeated in the media), but on examination it just doesn’t stand up. It’s very hard to prove a causal connection between the two, as serious researchers have discovered. TRAFFIC says there’s no hard evidence that these sales will lead to more poaching or increased illegal trade in ivory.
In fact, legal sales may help suppress poaching. CITES expects the recent sale of tusks, at which legitimate ivory reached $152 per kilogram, to undercut black market ivory, which was said to be going for up to $800 a kilogram—and it’s those inflated prices that provide the primary incentive for poaching in countries suffering from poverty and corruption. Legal ivory sales raise much-needed elephant funds. Guarding these magnificent creatures isn’t cheap. There are rangers to hire and arm, fences to repair and build, land to be purchased for wildlife corridors. Think about it: elephants don’t have to be killed to get their tusks. They leave these spectacular incisors behind when they die, and in many areas these are routinely recovered. That’s why tons of ivory is stockpiled in the warehouses of African parks and wildlife services each year. Cash-strapped African nations aren’t about to destroy stocks of this valuable “white gold”—particularly when no elephants were harmed in collecting it.
The history of ivory makes it clear why demand for this alluring organic material is never going to disappear. It’s been prized for millennia for its seductive, tactile qualities and its ability to be finely carved, and its use is ingrained in numerous cultures around the world.
Ivory needn’t be the elephant’s curse. Tightly controlled exports of legitimate ivory from Africa could be treated as a self-renewing resource that helps fund the effective conservation of the animal that has always been its greatest source.
Obviously, that would require a degree of regulation and enforcement that has so far proved elusive, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth striving for. New approaches to assuring a future for elephants—ones that Africans as well as elephants can live with—are desperately needed.
Last fall’s CITES-supervised ivory sale was a step in that direction, not a step backwards.