Why the ban on the ivory trade isn’t working

Record numbers of elephants are being slaughtered to feed a £12bn ivory trade – which in turn fuels crime and armed strife. Why isn’t the ban working? Simon Wilson reports.

How old is the ivory trade?

Almost as old as civilisation itself. For millennia humans have used ivory for jewellery, decoration, embellishment, carvings, sculpture and paintings.

In Ancient Greece and Rome the use of ivory was widespread. By about AD 1000 ivory hunters had already wiped out elephants from North Africa; it took until the 19th century to do the same in much of southern Africa.

Throughout the colonisation of Africa by European powers, ivory was taken – often using slave labour – for decorative uses, as well as for piano keys and billiard balls.

Today the main market for ivory is Asia and the record numbers now being killed each year (up to 40,000, or getting on for 10% of all remaining elephants) threaten to wipe out the species. The booming trade in rhino horn, by contrast, is a relatively new phenomenon.

How long has that been going on?

Although rhino horn has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years as a supposed ‘detoxifier’ to treat fever, impotence and other ills, demand had never been huge: horn is simply keratin, the same material as human fingernails or hair, and its medicinal value is negligible.

But all that has changed in the past five years as an urban myth took hold across Asia – that an unnamed Vietnamese politician, or in some versions his wife, had been cured of cancer by taking rhino horn.

As the rumour spread, a relatively small number of wealthy consumers, mostly in Vietnam and China, has turned rhino horn into a prized status symbol, worth more than its weight in gold.

As a result, in South Africa alone the number of rhinos killed by poachers has jumped from just 13 in 2007 to 668 in 2012 and 1,004 last year. Given that there are only about 25,000 rhinos left in the wild, the future looks bleak.

Is trade in ivory illegal?

Not all of it. Trade in new ivory – ie, ivory from tusks taken from newly dead elephants – has been illegal since 1990, when the global forum governing international agreements on wildlife preservation, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), agreed a ban after the halving of the elephant population to 600,000 during the 1980s.

However, the legal waters are muddied in two ways. First, trade in pre-1990 ivory remains legal and it’s hard to date ivory accurately without using expensive tests. Second, there have been periodic exemptions aimed at curtailing poaching by going some way to meet existing demand legally – and hence lowering prices.

In 2008, for example, the international community allowed Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana to sell their stockpiles of ivory to Japan and China.

How lucrative is the trade?

So lucrative that it has wider implications than for wildlife conservation alone. The huge profits available, in a trade worth up to £12bn a year, attract criminal networks, rebel militias and insurgent groups – fuelling violence and political instability.

The human cost, too, is high: more than 1,000 rangers have been killed in recent years trying to stop poaching gangs. These operate in paramilitary units armed with assault rifles, night vision goggles, and use helicopters to transport ivory overnight from inland Africa to the ports of Kenya and Somalia.

Has banning sales worked?

The 1990 ban seemed to work for a while: prices dropped; European and US ivory markets closed; and elephant populations recovered from Kenya to South Africa. But in the past 15 years or so sharply rising demand from wealthy consumers in China, Vietnam and Thailand – where state-sanctioned legal markets provide cover for the sale of smuggled ivory on a massive scale – has led to resurgence in poaching and a collapse in elephant (and rhino) numbers.

The debate about how to tackle the issue closely mirrors the debate on the global drugs trade. One approach – promoted at last week’s Cites conference in London – favours prohibition and enforcement aimed at choking off supply.

According to this way of thinking, legal and semi-legal ivory markets confuse the issue, weaken the moral injunction against using ivory, encourage consumption and undermine policing efforts.

What’s the other view?

That banning supply doesn’t choke off demand – it merely pushes the price up. According to this line of thinking the recent spate of crushing ivory to set an example (by the US, China and France) is ghoulish PR that ends up giving poachers an incentive by making ivory rarer.

For conservationists and economists who subscribe to this way of thinking, the elephant will only be saved if local people have a vested interest in saving it. In other words, the solution is not prohibition, but regulation, taxation and farming.

To save elephants, farm them

“Vague promises to get tough with ivory and horn dealers will have no more impact than getting tough with drugs growers,” writes Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. “Animals will not be protected in the wild unless some value can be imputed to them. They will go the way of the European bear and the American bison.

That value must accrue to those who alone can save them – Africa’s hard-pressed farmers, now increasingly inclined to turn to poaching. They and China’s consumers have a shared interest in wildlife conservation. Why criminalise them both?”

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