The Ivory Trade: Commodities, Controls and Consequences


© Shermin de Silva

February 23, 2012 03:53 EDT

This is no time to be complacent, or politically correct, or we will witness the loss of the largest land mammal left on Earth.

Trade in elephant ivory is a hugely divisive issue because it subsumes so many dimensions: human-elephant interactions, cultural artifacts and traditions, global illegal trade, and the conservation of elephants. Ivory exploitation will determine the probability of elephant populations becoming extinct and will affect human livelihoods. Ivory embodies the dilemmas associated with sustainable use of wildlife. Similarly, the loss of elephants has implications for regional environments, given that African elephants range across sub-Saharan Africa with significant influence on their habitats as ecosystem engineers. Ivory carries cultural, economic, and even political significance given its historic connection with illegal arms payments (see the Kumleben Commission Report of 1996).

The procurement and trade of ivory have become embedded in a network of organized crime serving the seemingly insatiable demand within Asia, and especially China. The Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international body of 175 member countries, instituted an ivory trade ban in 1989 following two decades of intense elephant poaching, but later permitted one-off sales of stockpiled ivory by Southern African elephant range states including Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. These sales stirred controversy over whether they would stimulate demand for ivory and therefore, poaching. While a clear causal relationship remains to be seen, since 2005 there has been a dramatic surge in illegal trafficking. This surge is partially attributed to one-off sales by the anti-trade side and to the trade ban by trade proponents.

The issues are complex and difficult to disentangle. In theory, if trade were legalized and controlled, the funds generated could be used for elephant conservation. But could current demand be met from natural mortalities and “Problem Animal Control” – legal ivory sources – or would harvesting be required? If elephants are being “consumed”, who will regulate their off-take, set limits on the numbers, and most pressingly, directly benefit from the trade?  Local people who live alongside elephants may need a return on that co-existence in order to sustain some level of tolerance, whereas the term “funds for conservation” suggests a direct return to Government (or parastatal) coffers.

It is unclear what has changed since the 1989 ban to make us believe that we can now control a trade in ivory, especially considering the involved crime syndicates are more sophisticated than ever. Basing conservation decisions on what may be less lucrative for the Mafia, Triads, and Yakuza means that we have entered an era of conservation facing off against organized crime, often by relying on market forces. How naïve is the view that market-driven approaches to conservation can curb a booming black market? What real world examples are there of such markets saving species?

In comparison to the 33,000+ species that CITES regulates, a highly disproportionate amount of time and energy at each Conference of the Parties (CoP) is devoted to ivory trade decisions. The “Ivory Trade Debate” exists largely due to polarized views among signatory countries. Some key issues remain unresolved, including voting on decisions by countries such as the UK and US, which are not elephant range states and therefore do not experience human-elephant conflict. Another issue is the split listing of a single species on Appendix I (total ban on international trade) and Appendix II (restricted trade) to allow southern African states a controlled trade. There is a lack of a transparent and participatory selection process for choosing members of Panels of Experts and participants in closed meetings at CoPs, as well as accountability questions about who provides the data that contribute to “end-user” decisions (government employees, contracted assessors, or scientists with their own vested interests). Decisions are made on a country-by-country basis despite the mobility of trans-border elephant populations across neighboring countries with different elephant management paradigms. There is a lack of chain of evidence and reliability in the determination of ivory sources – natural mortalities, controls/culls, or poached and confiscated. Finally, a purchasing country’s track record of adherence to CITES regulations, and a selling country’s justification of the need for funds and verification of fund use are not systematically accounted for.

These are multifaceted issues, further complicated by the fact that no simple ‘Africa-wide’ generalization can be made about elephant status and the causes of population increases or declines. This has led some scientists, for example Rosaleen Duffy, author of Nature Crime (2010), to contend against a “one-size-fits-all” solution and instead favor the split listing, which takes country-specific policies, management regimes, and conservation achievements into account. A country-by-country evaluation, akin to the CITES decision-making process, regards each country’s elephant population as distinct, and, as a result, disregards elephant movements across country borders curtailing the need to view elephant populations as meta-populations that span several countries. Professor Rudi van Aarde of the University of Pretoria and Tim Jackson, Africa Geographic’s scientific editor, believe elephants’ mobility necessitates transborder management efforts to guard against the problem of locally high numbers, which often lead to increases in conflict with humans.

The so called elephant “surplus” in Southern African countries must therefore be interpreted in the context of an elephant range that has shrunk and populations that have been compressed by over 50% since the 1970s. Elephant populations will never recover to what they were before the poaching epidemic of the 1970s when Africa lost at least 500,000 elephants. It is nevertheless argued by trade proponents John Frederick Walker and Daniel Stiles, that 40 years is not a recent enough timescale at which to discuss elephant population trends, even though 40 years does not amount to even one elephant lifetime.

We are moreover confronted with a second, and possibly more pressing question, than that of trade alone – is there space for elephants in Africa? Today for every 2000 humans in Africa, there is less than one elephant. While elephant populations declined catastrophically up to the late 1980s, the human population has nearly doubled, with China becoming the first country to reach a billion inhabitants in 1980. Elephant population recoveries have coincided with the expansion of human populations and their subsistence activities into former elephant habitats – eliminating the capacity for elephant population regrowth without direct and often hazardous human-elephant interactions. Human-elephant conflict (HEC) has become a voice for the dispossessed and powerless in political debates over land ownership, land use planning and political power. HEC is also now a potential mechanism exploited to increase ivory stockpiles. Human population expansion and a growing middle-income class have meant increased demand for not only traditional folk medicine (which have a huge impact on rhinos, tigers, and bears), but also for luxury goods such as bushmeat (by urban users) and ivory. Public policy, and not market forces, must address human pharmaphilia, warn Professor Richard Sullivan and colleagues in a 2010 EMBO report. Could public policy be similarly aimed at regulating humans’ archaic aesthetic values?

The conservation community has, in the meantime, become hushed by accusations of not caring about the rural poor, of over-sentimentalizing non-human species, offering little financial support for wildlife management, and for land grabs. For example, Duffy writes that, “The ways that the Western public sentimentalizes elephants means that the realities of living with them are made invisible”. Her statements represent another political perspective – that of the concerned western scientist redressing the dispossessed – and are as intellectually corrupt as the animal welfare activists who disregard human needs. Much funding and field biologists’ efforts are channeled into assessing and mitigating HEC. Examples include the famous Elephant Pepper project in Zimbabwe and beehive fences in Kenya – projects which have tested the efficacy of chilies and beehives as elephant deterrents. Over 15% of projects funded by the US Fish and Wildlife African Elephant Conservation Fund in the last five years (2006-2010) went to projects with an explicit HEC component. These endeavors, which represent how we are getting conservation right, are unmentioned in Duffy’s book on “How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong”.

According to Duffy, the ivory trade ban “punishes” the developing world, making the poor even poorer. This assumes that funds raised from legal ivory sales are, and would continue to, directly benefit communities that live alongside elephants; that these funds would be evenly, or at least equitably, distributed; and at least some of the revenue would go to mitigating HEC and restoring corridors (particularly if improving habitat connectivity would be a longer-term HEC mitigation strategy than deterrent methods). Duffy writes that international media and global NGOs “demonize villagers as greedy or patronize them as impoverished” when it comes to poaching. She is possibly correct that anti-poaching efforts are aimed at a symptom (poachers) rather than cause (global demand and its economic drivers), but conservation NGOs have not created these globalized markets.

When did poverty alleviation become conservation NGOs’ priority? Are there not bigger organizations – USAID, OXFAM, the UN – more experienced at this? And are ivory poachers really a symptom of poverty or of global demand and the corresponding chance of making a quick buck? Poachers in Mozambique recently killed 52 elephants from their helicopter, thus making them better equipped than the rangers on the ground and effacing the image of poachers as the “rural poor”.

The designation of corridors – which could help alleviate HEC by promoting elephant movement between suitable habitats – has recently been called a “land grab” in an article by Mara Goldman in Annals of the Association of American Geographers.Why are corridors that link wildlife populations not equally important as roads connecting human populations? Are roads through wilderness areas not “land grabs”? Is land, and its many uses and services, only for human benefit?

Authors such as Duffy and Goldman are asking conservationists to concede species loss in order to avoid charges of neocolonialism. These issues – largely political – leave little room for science and eco-centric advocacy. If the debate is really over ivory being an economic ‘resource’ for countries, is banning really the answer? If so, then the real question may be whether the demand side can be affected in the time frames necessary. This is about justice, distributive norms, and moral balance. Begetting the question, why do people want carved ivory? Why have certain “commodities” not become archaic in Asia and the rest of the world?

Investigation of the trade and regulation of other animal trophies (hippo teeth, turtle shells, Tibetan “Shahtoosh” shawls and animal parts used in traditional Chinese medicine – tiger bone, bear bile, and rhino horn) can inform the Ivory Trade Debate. However, the possible links between trade in one species and another are not well-researched. For example, the possibility of ivory stockpiling encouraging other stockpiles, such as tiger or bear parts derived from farms or captive populations, is uninvestigated. Tiger researchers, concerned over competition between ‘farmers’ and ‘traders’ (i.e., poachers),doubt whether a legal ivory market would realistically hinder the black market. Poachers can undercut farmers in any legal market, as the cost of producing tiger parts on farms is high (as is the cost of recovering and transporting ivory and maintaining ivory strong rooms). Meanwhile, the cost of poaching a tiger or elephant in the wild is relatively low, even given the risk of getting caught. Walker and Stiles’ belief in market forces for controlling the ivory trade and their belief that with a legal trade, the black market would have no buyers, regardless of corruption and weak law enforcement, does not appear to be rooted in examples from other species. That is, we have not observed “market forces” reducing demand in other sought-after animal parts (for example bear bile). Legalized trade in farmed tigers reopens a market that has seen a sharp decline in China. What forces would ensure that a legal elephant ivory trade is sustainable and controlled, particularly when illegal ivory trade is thriving in parts of China?

If trade in ivory would reduce poaching and lead to fewer elephants being killed, then it would be a simple matter and the issue of whether trade in ivory is ethical or not would not be argument for some, including Peter Singer, foremost animal rights philosopher. But while we gather facts on the relationship between the ivory trade and poaching and debate the details, we are losing thousands of elephants. I have come to see the “failure to act as we gather more data” as an ethical issue in itself. This again leaves aside the entirely more fundamental, ethical question, “Should elephants be a commodity at all?”

As Fred Nelson, Director of Maliasili Initiatives, a US-based non-profit, says, “The whole CITES debate is nice for op-eds but probably not that critical really for the situation on the ground, which depends more on what each individual country is doing in terms of law enforcement, sharing benefits with local communities, and natural resource governance in general.” What may be critical to this governance, and something that the conservation movement has not done well enough, is restoring the human relationship to the wild. Perhaps what we need is to celebrate nature in a way that reminds us of our interdependence on it, and makes environmentalism, rather than rhino horn chalices and elephant ivory-plated mobile phones, the status symbol of the nouveau riche – and of everyone else.

I thank Samuel Wasser, Phyllis Lee, Richard Sullivan and William Grassie for invaluable comments.

Related article: The Elephant in the Room

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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