John Frederick Walker

20 Years and Counting: Why the Ivory Debate Won’t Go Away

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on July 17, 2009

Twenty years ago tomorrow, Kenya’s president Daniel arap Moi lit a bonfire of 2,000 elephant tusks in Nairobi National Park as a dramatic gesture to signal his country’s stance against the trade in illegal ivory. Photographs of the huge blaze, with its black smoke curling skyward, appeared around the world and the event came to symbolize global revulsion against ivory poaching—and the killings that halved the African continent’s elephant population in single decade.

A few months later, in October of 1989, member countries at a CITES meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland decided to halt international trade in ivory. The ban came into effect at the beginning of 1990.

But it’s not easy to get rid of ivory—in fact, it took 60 tons of firewood and forty gallons of gasoline to ignite Moi’s twenty-foot stack of tusks. And it’s impossible to eliminate all trade in ivory—because bad as the illegal trade in ivory is for elephants, legitimate, regulated trade in ivory can actually help them.

How? Ivory is something elephants leave behind when they die of natural causes, and tons of it is routinely stockpiled by African nations. Those countries that do a good job of managing their elephant populations (as evidenced by their growing herds) have twice successfully petitioned CITES to allow “one-off” sales of their legitimate ivory stockpiles to raise money for elephant conservation.

The most recent sale, in October of last year, raised some $15 million dollars for South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. As part of the deal, these four nations were prohibited from petitioning CITES to sell additional ivory for nine years.

Much of the media misunderstood this critical detail, and asserted that all trade in ivory had been halted for another nine years. However, African countries that were not part of this “one-off” sale aren’t restricted from submitting proposals to sell their ivory stocks. Sources tell me CITES expects to hear from Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique at its next meeting in March, 2010.

The role of ivory in elephant conservation is a contentious issue, and will likely remain one for years to come. But in a shrinking world, elephants can’t wait forever for solutions. Ways must be found to suppress illegal elephant killings that feed the black market in ivory. At the same time, steps have to be taken to allow limited, highly controlled exports of legitimate ivory from countries that deserve to benefit from their successful efforts at protecting their elephants.

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.

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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