Could a legal ivory trade save the African elephant from extinction?

By Tracy Brighten

Legal trade of “conservation ivory” could end black market trade in “blood ivory”, but opponents say stigmatisation and a trade ban is the only solution

Carved elephants by William Warby

African elephants are in crisis, threatened by extinction like the woolly mammoth wiped out by man in the Arctic. Farmers attack when they roam on land that was once elephant habitat; zoos remove them to an unnatural life as exhibits; and trophy hunters take pride in slaying this ‘big five’ giant.

But most of all, elephants are at risk from poachers who hack off their face for tusks.

Save the Elephants says that despite the CITES international ban on ivory trade in 1989, Asian demand for “white gold” shows no sign of abating. A growing Chinese economy has led to more people being able to afford ivory and to desire its social status.

In an interview with Save the Elephants, Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), explained Asian attitudes. A 2007 survey found 70 percent of Chinese consumers weren’t aware the elephant has to be killed for its tusks and that one third of the tusk is inside the head. Ge Gabriel says that a synthetic ivory lookalike is available, but this would simply provide cover for illegal ivory trade, and people wouldn’t be interested in it as a status symbol.

Ivory consumption needs to be stigmatised to reduce demand, says Ge Gabriel. The current restricted legal market in China only serves to remove stigma.

John Frederick Walker, author of Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants, believes the solution is more complex than stigmatising ivory consumerism, burning ivory stocks, and banning the ivory trade altogether. In a World Policy Institute article, he argues for a controlled legal trade in “conservation ivory”, sourced from elephants that die from natural causes, or from those shot after serious injury or for attacking people. He believes this would end “blood ivory” from poaching.

Kenya opposes a reintroduction of ivory trade, pointing to the effect of one-off sales by African countries of non-poached ivory stocks. CITES approved sales to Japan and China in 1999 and 2009 led to a rise in poaching. Walker argues that one-off sales are the problem and that a regular legalised supply wouldn’t have this effect on demand and poaching.

The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has allowed China a limited trade since 2007. The Chinese government keeps an ivory stockpile and assigns an amount each year to licensed carvers and retailers. Many retailers are operating illegally however, and the increasing value of ivory has led to Chinese citizens making up 95 percent of smugglers caught at Nairobi airport, according to Kenya Wildlife Services.

Walker also points out that because of the legal ivory available in China, consumers assume that all ivory is legal. He says that investigations have exposed illegal carvers and sellers in China who operate behind the façade of a licensed retailer to sell poached ivory, showing that official inspections and prosecutions are rare.

The solution is to have a regulated and monitored legal trade with supply from conservation ivory, says Walker. The African countries would share in the wealth from this natural resource, and the black market would be closed down in consumer countries, where people would be educated to reject blood ivory. To ensure the authenticity of conservation ivory, a state-of-the-art tracking system would be used, including GPS cameras, 3D computer imaging and microchipping, to track the ivory from the ranger in the field to the retailer. This ivory would be certified as non-poached.

But is a legal trade in conservation ivory realistic? Criminal groups and corrupt government officials lured by profits from a limited commodity would surely perpetuate a black market and undermine efforts to police a legal trade in conservation ivory. Bribery and corruption infiltrates the entire supply chain.

Systems would need to be in place to stamp out corruption, and to make sure that local people, rangers and conservation groups benefit from any legal trade. Consumer country governments would need to enforce inspections and prosecutions for processing ivory without non-poached certification.

Then there is the problem of supply. Tusks are a finite natural ‘resource’. The elephant has a gestation period of 22 months, so meeting demand with supply through natural, as well as authorised, elephant deaths is highly improbable. If there was a legal ivory trade, how would a rein be kept on demand so that it could be met by conservation ivory stocks? Would poachers and fraudsters just get smarter, especially with terrorist groups involved? And if the retail price remains sky high, government stocks would need to be guarded like diamonds.

Ge Gabriel doesn’t believe elephant populations can support a legal trade in ivory. Rather, education is needed to reduce demand, and IFAW campaigns are helping to raise awareness of the elephant crisis. New surveys earlier in the year show that wildlife organisation campaigns are slowly working, and attitudes are changing.

The Chinese government is moving in the right direction too. In May, the government crushed over 650 kilograms of illegal ivory, and a one year suspension of import permits for African ivory carvings has been in place since February. IFAW is training officials at China’s border with Vietnam to improve detection of wildlife crime, and Ge Gabriel is encouraged that China’s Customs Agency has increased inspections and identified smuggling routes. The government has also featured celebrities, such as film star Jackie Chan, and basketball hero Yao Ming, in commercials that expose the illegal ivory trade.

As wildlife trafficking escalates, global co-operation, conservation funding, and ivory trade restrictions need to pick up pace if elephants are to be roaming African forests and savannahs in 20 years’ time.

A worldwide ban on all ivory trade would be the ultimate weapon in the war against poaching. Stockpiles, both government and private, would need to be destroyed and the financial loss absorbed. But losing wild African elephants forever is a much higher price to pay. What are governments waiting for?

Also posted on The News Hub Aug 7, 2015

Image credit: Elephants by William Warby on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Ivory elephants by Dan Kitwood on Getty Images
Chinese official guards ivory before public crushing by Fred Dufour on Getty Images