John Frederick Walker

Questions I’m Asked About Elephants and Ivory

Posted in ivory news by JFW on March 2, 2009

On my national book tour, I’m finding audiences are keen to hear about the impact of ivory on elephants in history, and eager to know what role ivory might play in future elephant conservation strategies.

That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some controversy.

Frequently, I’ve been asked about a number of contentious issues in elephant conservation. Will Kruger National Park in South Africa really have to start culling their swelling herds? Why aren’t there more effective ways to prevent human-elephant conflict in areas of shrinking habitat? And above all, why did CITES, the 173-nation convention on international trade in endangered species products, allow 100 tons of ivory from southern Africa to be sold last year—when elephants elsewhere are still being poached for their ivory?

I give them the best answers I can, based on the research I did for Ivory’s Ghosts.

And I remind audiences that I’m not there to tell them exactly what to think about elephants and ivory. I’m really there to encourage them to start to think about the complex problems and new challenges now facing African elephants that I’ve detailed in my book. And finally, to understand that the desire for ivory, for so long the elephants’ curse, just might, in the 21st century, be able to help rather than hurt these magnificent creatures.

How? Although elephants have been routinely slaughtered for the their ivory throughout human history, you don’t actually have to kill elephants to get their ivory.

Some people seem taken aback when I say this, and think that I’m going to suggest that elephant tusks could be somehow painlessly extracted—after all, they are teeth—or perhaps cut off to literally stump poachers. I explain that such extravagant measures aren’t needed to obtain guilt-free ivory. One just has to have patience: elephants, like all other creatures, eventually die.

Yes, I know, behind every tusk is a dead elephant, but consider this: just because an elephant is dead, doesn’t mean it was shot. It may have simply keeled over.

In the past, a portion of the ivory that found its way into the trade was “found” or “pick-up” ivory—recovered from carcasses encountered by chance in the bush. But it was chancy and unreliable as a source, and the global ivory trade instead relied on the ruthless pursuit and extermination of herds.

But today, tons of tusks are routinely recovered from elephants that die of natural causes, and stockpiled in the warehouses of wildlife departments and park services in dozens of African countries, creating a new and different kind of ivory problem: what should be done with these stockpiles of this perfectly legitimate ivory?

Cash-strapped African nations are not about to destroy their stocks of this valuable “white gold”—particularly when no elephants were harmed in collecting it.

Elephant conservation is expensive. From equipping park rangers to purchasing land to create wildlife corridors, from building fences to conducting research, it all takes money.

That’s why in October of 2008, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, which have well-managed, flourishing elephant populations, were able to sell, under CITES supervision, over 100 tons of tusks recovered from elephants that died of natural causes. The sale raised $15 million, all of it earmarked for elephant conservation.

Many elephant advocates claim that these kinds of legal sales just encourage poaching.

But according to TRAFFIC, the joint World Wildlife Fund / IUCN wildlife trade monitoring network, which has studied the issue for years, there’s no solid evidence that such sales lead to more poaching or increased illegal trade in ivory.

That’s the heart of the matter—and that’s why it’s so important to get ivory policy right.

Think about it. If there weren’t poaching, would there be any reason to object to sales of ivory from elephants that die of natural causes, with the proceeds going toward elephant conservation? And if poaching is likely to persist, whether or not there are ivory sales, then what’s wrong with raising money this way for elephant conservation—including anti-poaching efforts?

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