John Frederick Walker

The Elephant in the Meeting Room

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on March 31, 2010

CITES got it wrong on ivory sales—and elephants are the losers.

The 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, ended March 25 in Doha, Qatar. For two weeks, 175 national delegations confered and clashed over plummeting bluefin tuna stocks, the status of polar bears, endangered Iranian newts and, once again, the elephant-sized shadow of the ivory trade.

Ivory is an endlessly contentious conservation issue that just won’t go away. Recent elephant killings have spiralled sharply upwards, recalling the poaching crisis of the 1980s. That slaughter halved the continent’s population and led to the adoption of a ban on cross-border trade in ivory in 1989.

Contrary to many media reports, the current continent-wide half-million-strong elephant population, although vunerable, is actually increasing—the losses to poachers are offset by burgeoning herds in southern Africa. Still, continued killings and a thriving illicit trade in tusks are stark evidence that the ivory ban hasn’t worked the way its advocates hoped.

The red flag for animal advocates at CITES was the effort by Tanzania and Zambia to win approval to sell their government stockpiles of legal ivory. Such “one-off” ivory sales have happened only twice before, in 1999 and 2008, and raised $20 million for elephant conservation.

Many observers said the two countries did not have a convincing case that their national herds were sufficiently well-managed to be “downlisted” to a less-threatened status which would allow regulated trade in their products. There were also concerns about the documentation of their stockpiles. As a result, their proposals went down to defeat.

But that’s hardly reason to celebrate, as many animal groups have done. In fact, the fixation on preventing legal ivory sales distracts policy makers from coming to grips with the underlying causes of ivory poaching: Human desperation and poverty, corruption, underfunded and ineffective wildlife departments, and unregulated domestic ivory markets operating openly in many of the thirty-seven African elephant range states.

Animal advocates insist legal ivory sales stimulate poaching. It’s a claim that has been repeated so often that it’s widely accepted as fact, when it’s anything but. According to TRAFFIC, the joint IUCN/WWF wildlife trade monitoring network, illicit trade in ivory declined for five years after the 1999 sale of ivory to Japan. After that, illegal trade began to rise, and the trend was well underway before the 2008 ivory sale to China and Japan.

Instead of lobbying at CITES for the imposition of a twenty-year moratorium on ivory exports backed by Kenya and Mali (which failed to gain support), animal advocates should have given serious consideration to how a consistent flow of ivory could actually help elephants.

That’s right—help.

The real problem with one-off sales is that they can’t be counted on to happen, which makes the flow of ivory unpredictable. That keeps the black market and its elephant poaching gangs flourishing. You don’t need a degree in economics to grasp that annual or biennial sales of certified stocks could serve to undercut the illegal trade. In the 2008 sale, legal ivory sold for $75 a pound. Contraband tusks sell for three to five times that amount. If the former were available, who would risk buying the latter—and for far more?

Granted, it would take enormous effort and resources to reach the level of enforcement, certification, and international cooperation necessary to run a highly regulated legal ivory market, but it is the only way forward. Five years of research on the history of ivory has convinced me that it’s a fantasy to think that the age-old desire for this seductive carving material, valued globally since pre-history, will ever disappear.

The key to converting ivory demand into something that helps elephants is utilizing the huge supply of gleaming tusks routinely recovered from the carcasses of elephants that die of natural causes. This guilt-free ivory is kept in vaults by African governments in the hope that someday their “white gold” can be sold. It’s estimated that up to a hundred tons of ivory supplied by the natural mortality of the continent’s elephants could be recovered yearly. That’s enough to supply the domestic ivory market in China and Japan, currently the only CITES-approved buyers, who’ve agreed not to re-export any ivory.

Some insist it’s too soon to try reopening restricted trade in tusks and that in any case the elephants need a “reprieve” until highly threatened populations in some countries recover. But shutting off all legal flow ensures that pent-up demand can only be supplied by the black market. That will mean more, not less poaching.

A strictly limited ivory sales system accessible only to countries with stable elephant populations could help underwrite a viable future for African elephants. It would be a powerful incentive to all range states to crack down on corruption and illegal killings and better protect their national herds.

There was a lot a stake for elephants at this recent CITES meeting, and not many signs of bold thinking. Sadly, Africa will be left with even more elephant poaching, and growing piles of tusks that can’t be sold.