John Frederick Walker

Do Ivory Sales Encourage Elephant Poaching?

Posted in elephant and ivory news by JFW on March 20, 2009

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 mangagement 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, the 173-nation UN-administered convention that governs trade in endangered species, and netted $15.4 million dollars.

Final approval for it came out of the CITES meeting of member states in the Hague 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 reexport 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, the joint World Wildlife Fund / IUCN wildlife trade monitoring network, 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 averaged $152 per kilogram, to undercut black market ivory, which was said to be going for up to $800 a kilogram in Asia—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.

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