The close of 2012 brought a glimmer of hope for the world’s elephants when Tanzania withdrew its proposal to reduce protection for its elephant population and sell its considerable stockpile of legal ivory through the CITES process.
But it was a brief respite. Three days into 2013, Hong Kong seized 779 elephant tusks—just over a tonne of ivory, the third large seizure there in as many months—bringing the total to around six tonnes. That’s at least 600 dead elephants.
Right now, the subject of ivory trading is on everyone’s lips: to trade or not to trade? There’s also a lot of talk about reducing demand by targeting consumers with awareness campaigns. But no one talks about targeting the individuals, governments, and vested interests that stimulate the trade.
- There are simply not enough elephants in the world to satisfy the growing demand, legal or otherwise, for ivory.
- China, where demand is skyrocketing, is taking steps to increase ivory-selling capacity, which will fuel even greater demand. China now advocates the sale of seized, as well as legal, stockpiles.
- In the period leading up to the late 1980s, when it was legal to trade ivory, African elephant numbers plummeted by almost two-thirds. The 1989 ivory trade ban was put in place because the trade system did not work.
- The 1989 ivory ban is effectively no longer in place, having been subverted by two “one-off” ivory sales approved by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES is currently considering adopting an all-out ivory trade system.
- Ivory buyers and sellers are assaulted by a range of mixed messages about the legality or otherwise of ivory. Likewise, religious followers in key consumer countries receive little or no guidance from their leadership.
- Legal ivory markets provide a laundering mechanism for illegal ivory.
- Talking about trade costs money. Millions of dollars are spent each year by governments and NGOs on flying to meetings, paying consultants, holding workshops, preparing papers and initiatives to address the issue of trade. All that talk and busy work, and elephants keep dying.
- Any trade system (workable or otherwise) costs huge amounts of money to administer, regulate, monitor, legislate.
- Protecting elephants costs much more than money. Every single day, men and women across Africa and Asia put their lives at risk to protect elephants from ruthless pursuit by poachers and traders. Every day elephants are killed; some days people are killed too. The social fabric of people and elephants is irrevocably torn.
- Enforcement is weak. Convictions are rare, and penalties, if ever applied, are negligible. Ivory trading is a criminal act involving organized international criminal networks. It corrupts communities and undermines national security, yet it is still treated essentially as a misdemeanor.
Ivory Trade Decision Looming
In March 2013, the question of ivory trading will again come to the fore, at the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES. A decision-making process for the resumption of international trade in elephant ivory is on the table for discussion. Once again, the meeting will doubtless be mired in hostile, acrimonious, and polarized debate.
All this will take place against the backdrop of elephants being illegally slaughtered in unprecedented numbers, their tusks mostly spirited into the lucrative black market of China, where initiatives are under way to increase the capacity to buy and sell ivory. Up to 90 percent of the ivory available in China is illegal, and it finds its way onto the market alongside the “legal” supplies CITES has sanctioned.
Trade is offered up as a panacea. The argument is this: by supplying the market with legal ivory, there will be no need to get ivory illegally. As the stockpile sales have shown, this rationale has been a spectacular failure.
But what if there was no trade at all? What if all trade in ivory, domestic as well as international, was illegal? If there were no legal markets, then anyone and everyone caught buying or selling ivory would be breaking the law. Wouldn’t that be simple?
With no potential future market, there would be no need to stockpile ivory and spend vast (undetermined) amounts of money building facilities, storing ivory in appropriate (humidified) conditions, transporting it to holding facilities, guarding it, and training enforcement agencies to try to figure out what is and what isn’t legal ivory.
And we could all stop talking about it.
Imagine the amount of money spent internationally, year after year, attending meetings, flying around the globe to workshops, writing documents, arguing the ivory trade’s pros and cons, as well as the millions spent every three years to put ivory high on the agenda at CITES meetings, to the detriment of other less charismatic, even more threatened, species.
The reality is that the money generated by ivory sales does not get reinvested in elephant conservation or in the communities that live alongside elephants. All too often the money disappears into central coffers to plug a budget hole somewhere else, further disenfranchising communities and increasing their hostility to wildlife.
A total ban is straightforward. And it’s ultimately likely to be the least costly option in terms of both dollars and fatalities, elephant and human. And it’s the most successful way to secure a future for elephants in the wild. Imagine what would happen to wildlife tourism if there were no more elephants to see? Tanzania, for instance, generates at least 17 percent of its GDP from tourism, the majority of which is wildlife tourism. It directly employs more than 30,000 people, who in turn support extended families. It indirectly employs many more.
There are no easy answers, but a total ivory trade ban is the one strategy we know has worked.
Mary Rice is the Executive Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, an NGO based in London and Washington, D.C., that investigates and exposes environmental crime and illegal trade in natural resources.