To legalise or not to legalise?
But this does give any solution about the increasing elephant population in the African countries that have successfully protected them.
The task is to chalk out the road map to legalise the trade. There are a few examples to learn from. Take, for instance, crocodile farming. With declining wild populations in the 1960s and 1970s, crocodile farming began to gather momentum in as many as six countries—Zimbabwe, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Venezuela, and the US. During this time, many countries enacted legislations to protect crocodilian population, and CITES was enacted in 1975 to regulate trade in wild species. Crocodile farming was seen not only as a way to reduce the pressure on the wild populations but also as a means through which commercial incentives for the conservation of crocodilians could be generated.
By late 1970s and 1980s, many programmes were being developed, based on the sustainable use of crocodilians to generate conservation benefits for several subspecies, including the Nile crocodile, Saltwater crocodile, American alligator, Spectacled Caiman, and New Guinea crocodile. As all species of crocodilian are listed on the CITES Appendices, international trade is regulated.
Countries that are signatories to CITES, and which utilise wild crocodilian resources, must demonstrate that the use does not threaten the survival of the species. This typically involves some sort of monitoring of the wild population to assess the impacts of use, and regulation of products in trade. For example, all crocodilian skins in international trade must have a uniquely numbered, non-reusable tag attached to them—this allows “legal” skins to be easily identified. With only farmed crocodiles being used to meet the demand for meat and leather, the population in wild has increased considerably. According to a 2015 report by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the population of crocodiles in the world has increased from 0.3 million in the 1960s to 2.5 million in 2013.
Though there are claims that the animal is ill-treated in captivity, China’s tiger farm industry vouches that the trade in captive animals helps to relieve the pressure on wild felines. Terry Anderson, executive director of Property and Environment Research Center, a US-based non-governmental organisation that looks at market-based approaches to conservation, feels that “Regulated tiger farms could provide enough tiger products to reduce the pressure on wild tigers from poaching. It would be wrong to say that by eliminating the market we eliminate the demand for tigers.” Anderson adds that the focus on the issue of killing the animals means many animal rights activists may lose sight of the potential of what he calls a “conservation-commodity solution”.
These examples show that the demand for ivory too could be met by farming. It is also said that the tusks of captive elephants are more in demand because of their off-white buttery colour. The tusks of wild elephants have black striations and the artefacts made of wild tusks are considered inferior. Countries with sizeable elephant populations can consider the option. In Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Botswana, for example, people already farm elephants on ranches for trophy hunters.
Though there have been a lot of arguments in favour of legalising ivory trade, not everyone is convinced that it would help matters. The proponents of legal ivory trade say that allowing sales of stockpiles would flood the market with ivory and bring the price down. But this did not happen in 2008 when CITES allowed African countries to auction their stockpiles and China and Japan bought it in significant amounts.
Even pre-1990 ivory was allowed to be sold in this one-time sale. In fact, this sale of ivory is said to be the reason for the continued decline in elephant numbers. George Wittemyer and five other researchers in their study “Illegal killing for ivory drives the global decline in African elephants” highlight that illegal killing of elephants in Africa increased significantly after 2008 and correlated strongly with the local black market ivory price and increased seizures of ivory destined for China.
The study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, says that in Africa 29,124 tuskers were killed in 2010 and the figure increased to 41,044 in 2011. Li Zhang, professor of ecology at Beijing Normal University, China, says that CITES’ move to auction ivory stockpile proved fatal for African elephants. “The auction opened up the diminishing ivory market and its effect is still continuing with rampant poaching of elephants,” Li says. Even the decision to ban only the post-1990 ivory is now considered short-sighted. “It’s extremely difficult to differentiate between post- and pre-1990 ivory,” says Gavin Edward. He says that CITES may not have thought of this problem while imposing the ban.
“Legalising ivory trade will not end the problem,” says Henley. “As long as there is ivory available, the killing will continue.” Most of the illegal trade is, in fact, apparently happening at the less expensive end of the market, with seizure data showing enormous amounts entering China, explains Harvey. Henley says, “If you open up the market, you risk unintended consequences which could be disastrous for the elephant.” She adds, “It is poverty and unemployment that make poaching so uncontrollable. With the best of intentions, people around the world pour money into increasing the guns and protection in vulnerable areas—but to me, that’s addressing a symptom and not the cause. More money should be going into community development and education, raising awareness of the value of this wildlife to the community.”
There is also a need to bring the demand for ivory down. “Ivory is a status product—it has no medicinal use,” says Henley. “When you know it is a social status artefact, what you need to do is shame it.”
Ivory trade is unlike any other industry, says Harvey. There isn’t enough data to understand the possible consequences of a legal trade. “We have to ban the stuff, we have to enact strong international law and enforcement efforts.”
Globally, a lot of effort is being made towards continuing the ban. Even Hong Kong has succumbed to the pressure. This January, Leung Chun-ying, head of Hong Kong’s administration, announced plans to ban ivory trade. At a press briefing held after the announcement, Leung said, “We will take steps to totally ban the sale of ivory in Hong Kong... As to the matter of timing, we will do it expeditiously, as quickly as we can, but this will require legislative amendments and that will be a matter for the Legislative Council.”
The prices of ivory are already going down. In December 2015, a new research to be published by Save the Elephants, a UK-registered non-profit based in Kenya, indicated that the price of illegal raw ivory in China has almost halved over the past 18 months. The value of raw ivory in Beijing had tripled in the four years up to 2014, reaching an average wholesale price of $2,100/kg, but by November 2015 this had dropped to $1,100, as revealed in the new study by experts on ivory markets, say Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin, authors of the study. This is because of the growing awareness in China about the impacts of buying ivory and the slowdown of the Chinese economy, say the researchers in the study.
There is huge pressure on China as well to ban ivory trade and President Xi Jinping has already constituted a working group to prepare an effective ivory ban policy. “The government has apprised ivory carvers and traders to exhaust their stock within 12 months. After that ivory permits won’t be renewed,” Li said. It means that the domestic market for ivory in China will be abolished by the end of next year. Li, however, says that such country-wise ban will have a very limited or no impact on elephant poaching.
He points out that China and Hong Kong might have huge stockpiles of ivory, but the US and many European countries also have hundreds of tonnes of ivory brought through trophy hunting. Though US President Barrack Obama has taken a tough stand on the trade of endangered species, only three of the 50 states in the US—New York, New Jersey, and California—have banned it, Li adds. This despite a recent US-China agreement which, according to a White House press release issued during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit in September 2015, says, “The United States and China commit to enact nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”
Li advocates for a complete global ban, with governments buying the entire stock of ivory to put an end to elephant poaching. “If China is serious about the ban, it would buy the entire stock of ivory from the market and donate it to museums. No ivory in the market will end ivory trade,” he says. He calculates that going by the current price of ivory at $1,350 per kg, and adding inventory and storage expenses, China will have to invest $84 million to buy raw ivory and another $500 million to purchase carved ivory. “These pieces can be conserved in a museum as an educational initiative to teach children about wildlife crime and how China ended it,” Li adds. He advocates similar initiatives by all the countries.
“Ivory is not used to make any life-saving drugs. The only purpose is to carve statues and make seals. There are already suitable alternatives to ivory and I think totally banning ivory trade should be the answer,” says Jose Louies, Head, Enforcement & Law Division, Wildlife Trust of India. “Ivory is not something without which we cannot live and farmed ivory will only increase the poaching,” Edwards says.
This does leave the question of what is to be done with the increasing elephant population in the African countries that have successfully protected elephants.
(This is the concluding part of the two-part series, first of which was published yesterday. The views expressed are strictly personal.)