My latest article, “Rethinking Ivory,” appears in the Summer 2013 issue of World Policy Journal, and is now available online. It challenges the conventional wisdom on the ivory trade and argues that a well-regulated commerce in tusks could offer a realistic way forward for elephant conservation.
ScienceDaily reports that scientists at at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz are working on an innovative reference database to allow the identification of the origin of elephant ivory. The research sounds encouraging—it could be a useful tool in the fight against illegal trade in ivory.
But the report also suggests how more precise ivory identification in the future might also make a limited, regulated and workable ivory trade possible. Here’s the key passage in the section “Trade as necessity—the necessity of trade”:
“…the countries of the southern part of Africa in particular are increasingly arguing that they should be allowed to trade freely in ivory from the stocks they already hold so that they can raise the finances they urgently need for nature conservancy measures. Unfortunately, this method of generating income would not be without its problems: If free trade is permitted, it would become increasingly difficult to differentiate between legal and illegal ivory at the point of sale and the legalized trade could be used as a cover for ivory smuggling and poaching. Isotope maps provide an effective way of resolving this dilemma.”
From: “Reference database to identify origin of elephant ivory.” ScienceDaily 26 November 2010. 29 November 2010 <http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/11/101126094538.htm>
Matthew Wilkinson, who runs the website Safaritalk from his base in Portugal, interviewed me at length on ivory issues (click here for the complete interview). The site has a number of forums and blogs where people who share a passion for African wildlife conservation can engage in discussions with people in the field and find out about worthwhile projects—and how to support them.
I wrote an Op-Ed that appeared in The Washington Post on October 17, 2009—the 20th anniversary of the ivory ban vote that brought the ancient international trade in ivory to a halt—to ask why the ban wasn’t more effective. It’s reprinted below:
Selling Ivory to Save the Elephants
By John Frederick Walker
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 World Wildlife Fund/International Union for Conservation of Nature 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, 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, 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.
John Frederick Walker is the author of “Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants.”
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.
My well-attended lecture at the Harvard Museum of Natural History this past January was recorded by WGBH in Boston, and is now on their website as part of their Forum Network.
The presentation includes a series of images of ivory art, the African commerce in tusks, and of course elephants, and touches on as many of the book’s themes as can be squeezed into an hour. A Q&A segment follows. Click here to view the lecture.