Here we go again.
Ever since paleoanthropologist and then-head of Kenya’s Dept., of Wildlife Conservation and Management Richard Leakey famously burned 10 tons of confiscated ivory in October, 1989 — just weeks prior to a CITES meeting that would decide whether to include the elephant on its global list of endangered species — the ivory lobby has sought to overturn the ban on trade in ivory.
And guess what’s back on the agenda at CITES’ once-every-three-years meeting, happening right now, through Aug. 28, in Zurich, Switzerland?
A number of southern African countries, led by Zimbabwe, want to sell their stockpiled ivory — worth an estimated USD $300 million — ostensibly to raise funds for conservation, though given the state of Zimbabwe’s economy, and that government’s tenuous relationship with good governance, no one really believes that.
Botswana, traditionally a safe haven for Africa’s otherwise beleaguered wild elephants, recently incurred the wrath of the international conservation community by lifting its ban on trophy hunting for elephants; the CITES ban on trade in ivory was still in effect, however, and remains so. For the time being.
That may change.
Conservation groups’ nerves are frayed in Zurich right now because just days ago CITES — shorthand for the torturously labeled United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — lifted the ban on the sale of stockpiled rhino horn in South Africa, again ostensibly to raise funds for the conservation of rhinos.
The problem with elephants is that, right now and depending on who you talk to, there are too many elephants in too small a space in countries like Botswana and Zimbabwe, but too few elephants in once wildlife-rich, tourism-dependent countries like Kenya and Tanzania.
“Why should we have to suffer,” one Namibia farmer and lodge operator told me angrily, a number of years back, “because East Africa can’t handle its poaching problem?”
Even with the ban, elephants face an uncertain future. As recently as five years ago, according to a study by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, some 100 African elephants were being killed every day for their tusks. Today, the Worldwide Fund for Wildlife (WWF) estimates just 415,000 wild elephants remain in Africa. That seems like a large number when one considers that possibly fewer than 10,000 cheetahs remain on the entire planet — but the elephant is a herd animal, remember, not a solitary predator. Sometimes, too, it’s not the total number that tells the story so much as how quickly that number has crashed. Forty years ago, there were more than a million wild elephants. In just 10 years, between 1979 and 1989, the elephant population crashed more than half, from 1.3 million to 600,000.
Despite a promise by China that it would halt ivory-related commerce by the end of 2017, the illegal trade persists. The market is still there.
Ivory is valued for its quality and malleability in high-end, expensive carvings. It’s a status symbol throughout China and Southeast Asia, owing to its uniquely, close-grained texture, adhesive hardness, mellow colour and pleasing smoothness.
Ivory is infinitely better — and so more sought-after — than any
chemical compound or substance created in a lab. Imitation ivory, unlike, say, imitation leather, is virtually unheard of.
How you feel about the ban depends largely on who you choose to believe.
Conservationists, non-governmental organizations and a handful of African countries, such as Kenya, argue that the ban feeds public awareness of the need to protect one of the world’s most engaging, iconic animals, and sends a message to poachers that they’ll face stiff fines and prison sentences if they’re ever caught.
The ban’s critics argue that a ban has the opposite effect: It feeds the perception that ivory has near-priceless value, because it’s both rare and illegal. Extending the ban on international trade in ivory, they argue, will only further hurt those countries that are already struggling with poverty.
The original ban was enacted in 1990 — just weeks after Leakey’s ivory burn — and proved effective for about 10 years. Starting in 1997, though, CITES granted one-time-only exceptions to Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia to sell a limited amount of ivory.
The effect on wild elephant populations was immediate and dramatic, and not in a good way. Illegal trafficking tripled between 1998 and 2011.
The trouble is that when some ivory is legal and other ivory isn’t, it’s impossible to tell the two apart, let alone enforce laws that keep changing every three years, every time CITES meets.
Worse, once you establish a legal market for a supposedly illegal commodity in one part of the world, the rest of the world can be forgiven for asking why it shouldn’t be legal in their part of the world, too.
The result is, quite simply, a mess.
You would think that, with the evidence of 1998-2011 staring them straight in the face, CITES delegates would get it into their heads by now that one-time-only exceptions to the ivory ban just won’t work, and in fact have the opposite effect. When illegal trafficking triples in a 12-year period, something is clearly amiss somewhere.
They say elephants never forget. So why can’t CITES delegates do the same?