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Should ivory trade be legalised?

Should ivory trade be legalised?
All objects are made of one hundred percent genuine ivory,” says the shopkeeper at Ming Hing Arts showroom in Hong Kong’s Kowloon locality. Hong Kong is the world’s largest market for ivory and the showroom is one of Hong Kong’s oldest shops selling ivory artefacts. The shop proudly displays a board that reads, “In business since 1952”, and has artefacts ranging from 10,000 Hong Kong dollars (HKD) to 1,000,000 HKD. We show him a picture of Ganesha and ask how much would it cost to get the image carved into a 15 x 10 cm ivory idol. “It will be 98,000 HKD. Delivery in a month,” he says, adding, “50,000 HKD for ivory and 48,000 HKD for carving.” When we ask him when and where the ivory was procured, he curtly asks us to leave.

The shop is symbolic of the global ivory trade, which is illegal, but continues to thrive in countries such as China. Unofficial estimates put the annual volume of illegal ivory trade at US $18 billion.

Ivory trade was banned in 1989 by the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between 181 governments to ensure that trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The countries voted to place African elephants on CITES’ Appendix 1, which prohibits trade in ivory and other elephant parts. 

However, the ban caused a vertical split in CITES, with one side demanding that the tradebe declared legal and the other saying that legalising would be fatal for African elephants, which are the source of most of the illegally traded ivory in the world. The issue is likely to come to a head at the 17th Conference of Parties of CITES to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, from September 24 to October 24. CITES is under pressure to devise innovative methods to allow ivory trade while ensuring elephant conservation. 

Ivory trade has caused a rapid decline in elephant population in the continent. “The Hard Truth”, a report released by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2015, states that there were three million to five million African elephants at the beginning of the last century but the figure came down to 0.47 million in 2015.

The situation deteriorated particularly during 2000-2015 when the number of elephants in central Africa declined by 62 percent. 

“Though habitat loss and conflicts with humans contributed to this decline, poaching for ivory has been identified as the biggest threat to elephants. Illegal international ivory trade has actually tripled since 1998,” Gavin Edward, director of conservation at WWF, Hong Kong, told Down To Earth. Between 2010 and 2012, more than 100,000 elephants were poached in Africa, with forest elephants bearing the greatest impact, he said. A CITES meeting held in 2013 grouped China, Kenya, Malaysia, Thailand, Uganda, Tanzania, Vietnam, and the Philippines as “parties of primary concern” where “poaching and/or illegal trade in ivory is at its peak”.

Penalised for saving elephants 
While the CITES ban has failed to protect the elephant, it has led to a disquiet among African countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania, and Swaziland. These countries have managed to protect the animal and its population has increased beyond the carrying capacity of the land. They say that ivory trade should not be banned because they need revenue from ivory sales to fund conservation efforts. Many of these countries have stockpiles of ivory and they want to earn from its sale. Zimbabwe, for example, has a stockpile of more than 90 tonnes, worth nearly US$13 million, obtained mostly from elephants that died a natural death. Rather than being able to earn from it, Zimbabwe spends almost the same amount ($13 million) every year on retrieving, preserving, transporting and storing ivory, say wildlife officials. With the country’s economy in a precarious situation, the government cannot afford such expenditure. Moreover, against a holding capacity (the maximum number of elephants that a country’s ecosystem can support in natural conditions without affecting its equilibrium) of 45,000, Zimbabwe has an elephant population of around 100,000. Till about a decade ago, legal trophy hunting could provide the communities that manage forests under Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE programme enough money to survive in the harsh land where agriculture is not possible. But that is no longer the case. The US has been campaigning against sport-hunting and this has reduced our earnings which we could have used for conservation efforts, says Zimbabwe’s Environment, Water and Climate Minister, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri. Licensed hunters pay $120,000 for an elephant and $60,000 for a lion while tourists pay $3 to view animals, she says. 

Prior to a ban on trophy hunting and carrying of ivory products on major US airlines, the elephant-hunting industry in southern African countries used to generate $14 million annually. Now, instead of earning, they spend huge amounts on protecting the ivory stockpile. And it is not that the elephants are now safe. They continue to be killed because domestic trade is still allowed in countries like Zimbabwe. In the absence of options, communities resort to poaching even though the local market lacks the financial clout to consume large amounts of ivory. Muchinguri–Kashiri says the ban has actually increased poaching across the country. In 2015 alone, 11 suspected poachers were shot dead, 2,139 incursions were detected, and 1,354 local poachers and 129 foreign poachers were arrested. The country also lost 35 elephants to poaching the same year. The government has roped in the army to improve security in protected areas. But with inadequate revenue to support these operations, poaching is likely to continue. 

Muchinguri–Kashiri says she will present a report on poaching to the Cabinet soon. “We are holding more than 90 tonnes of ivory and we are losing some of the tusks,” she says. “Poaching will continue because there is a market out there. If we are permitted to do sport-hunting and trade in a legal way, it will help us a lot.” 

Overpopulation and poaching
South Africa faces the same dilemma. The country’s elephants have grown in numbers to a point of overpopulation. Poaching cases are also on the rise. “The Kruger National Park has had the highest poaching incidence within the last 15 years during just the past six months,” says Michelle Henley, co-founder, programme manager and principal researcher at Elephants Alive, a research organisation based in Hoedspruit, South Africa. Twenty-two elephants have been poached from the park since September last year. “Southern Africa—South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Mozambique, effectively—is the last stronghold of the African elephant,” says Henley. “Thirty years ago, this region had only 21 percent of the elephants in Africa; today it has over 50 percent. A wave of poaching has swept across Africa, starting in West Africa (which has less than two percent of its elephants remaining) and taking 65 percent of the elephants in Central Africa.” 

About 0.8 million elephants have been killed in the last three decades, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, a New York-based non-profit. The non-profit launched a 96 Elephants Campaign in 2013, to highlight that 96 elephants were then being killed every day. The majority of these deaths were because of poaching. Trophy hunting contributes a very tiny percentage of elephant deaths, says Henley.

The rising elephant population is a problem because elephant herds can cause substantial losses if they enter farms. As far back as in 2008, the South African government had lifted the moratorium on the culling of elephants. At that time, the country’s environment minister, Martinus van Schalkwyk, said that culling would be considered only as a management option of last resort. But culling has not been practised for years, and experts at the Kruger park say they are using natural methods—such as closing boreholes and allowing more natural patterns of movement to prevail by opening up the borders with Mozambique, for example—to keep the numbers down. They reckon the numbers have risen, but not by as much as they could have without these methods.

Like Zimbabwe, South Africa is in the possession of a fairly significant stockpile of ivory confiscated from poachers or collected following natural deaths. Currently, the country’s stand on legal ivory trade is “officially undecided, with huge internal debate” in the Department of Environmental Affairs, says Ross Harvey, senior researcher at South African Institute of International Affairs, a Johannesburg-based non-governmental research institute.

There’s a strong chance that South Africa will come out in support of legalising trade in ivory, says Chris Galliers, a unit leader in biodiversity at the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, a Howick-based non-profit. There is “quite a prominent ideological stance that ‘this is our ivory and we should be able to capitalise on it’,” says Harvey. 

Moreover, in certain pockets, poaching is the only option available to communities to survive. Though poachers get only about a tenth of the price, it still is a huge amount. For instance, one tusk, weighing 35-40 kg, gets a poacher over $8,000 in Malawi, an east African country whose per capita income in 2015 was $275. So it came as no surprise when assistant director of National Parks and Wildlife of Malawi, William Mgoora, announced in September 2014 that the population of elephants in the country had fallen to less than 2,000 due to poaching and illegal wildlife trade. “Illegal wildlife trade has been escalating, with recent evidence [suggesting] that organised international crime syndicate is targeting and exploiting Malawi as a source and transit route for their illegal wildlife trade,” he had said. Low per capita income and rampant elephant poaching make Malawi an ideal country to source ivory.

Legal market will curb poaching
If the trade is legalised, there would be regular markets for ivory and this would help curb poaching. “Regulated sale of ivory can benefit conservation, as claimed by the countries with regulated markets [for instance, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia]; perhaps more important, the results [of the study] also suggest that action to close unregulated ivory markets in Africa is needed to protect the elephant,” Ronald Clarke, author of “The International Ban on Ivory Sales and its Effects on Elephant Poaching in Africa”, a paper published in The British Journal of Criminology in 2009, told Down To Earth. 

In an article published in Conservation Biology in 2014, Elizabeth L Bennett, vice-president, Species Conservation, Wildlife Conservation Society, says, “The legal market would be supplied from animals in the wild now or recent past (e.g., sales from stockpiles of ivory and saiga horn), from captive or semi-captive animals (e.g., rhinoceros horn removed fromliving animals), or from farmed animals (e.g., bear bile, tiger bones). Numerous plant and animal species are already subject to a managed trade which, in many cases, is sustainable; legal trade dominates the market and illegal trade is minimal (e.g., ornamental plants, crocodile skins).”

“In Africa, budgets are tight, and governments have bigger priorities such as funding health and education. At an international level, public sympathy for elephants rarely translates into cash, so donor funding is normally short-term and unpredictable,” says Bob Smith, senior research fellow in conservation science, University of Kent, UK. “This is why many African governments stockpiled ivory that was confiscated from poachers or came from elephants that died of natural causes before selling their ivory legally and using the money to fund conservation work,” he explains. 

“The passionate opposition to the trade partly comes from lack of awareness—many people think all ivory comes from poaching, whereas some come from elephant deaths and herd conservation and management. Many people are also uneasy about the idea of making money from wildlife and are particularly uncomfortable when it involves animals as majestic as elephants,” explains Smith.

In “An Analysis of Ivory Demand Drivers”, a 2015 study sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society, author Daniel Stiles of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, argues that “Closing the legal market will not make the black market disappear; if anything, it will grow larger… There are more than enough elephants to supply a legal market from natural mortality without illegally killing a single elephant—if the ivory items are kept expensive,” which, he says, can only be assured if there’s a legal market. 

(Views expressed are of Down to Earth. This article is  the first of a two-part series)
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