As always, pry beneath the surface and there’s more there than meets the eye. In a post-truth world, where facts don’t count for much and low-information voters keep electing populists, no news item, it seems, is entirely as it appears.
Word late Friday that CITES delegates meeting in Geneva have decided to keep the ivory ban in place and deny several African countries’ bid to have the ban lifted for a one-off sale of stockpiled elephant tusks — the better to fund conservation efforts with, they insist — has been met with a mixture of relief and tempered euphoria in the Save the Elephant conservation community.
The reason not everyone is doing cartwheels of joy is best summed up by two similar and yet seemingly contradictory headlines. “Bid to allow sale of ivory stockpiles rejected at wildlife trade summit,” the nature site Mongabay (“News & Inspiration from Nature’s Frontline”) reported, and went on to furnish details: “A proposal by Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia that would have allowed them to sell their ivory stockpiles has been rejected by 101 votes to 23 at the wildlife trade summit taking place in Geneva.”
Germany’s respected public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle took a more circumspect tack, however, with its heading, “Elephant ivory ban upheld, but legal loopholes remain.”
Those loopholes include the — for now — legal trade in woolly mammoth tusks, which make it possible for illicit ivory — i.e. ivory from elephants that have been illegally hunted — to be traded in the market as legal ivory, as elephant tusks and mammoth tusks can be hard to tell apart. Mammoth tusks used to be relatively rare, but warming permafrost and receding ice in the Arctic is uncovering more buried mammoth tusks all the time. Mammoth tusks are being uncovered in Siberia at such a rapid pace that it may not be long before ivory from mammoth tusks becomes an industry in its own right.
At the very least, mammoth ivory helps feed a market most conservationists wish would just go away entirely.
“We’re pleased with the outcome, but frustrated also that we have to spend all this time having that discussion again when there’s so much work that needs to be done,” International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) policy director Matt Collis told Deutsche Welle.
Kenya drew the hardest line against lifting the ivory ban, backed by several countries — most of them in East Africa — in the African Elephant Coalition (AEC). Kenya opposed the bid by southern African countries, saying one-off sales increase the demand for ivory, making poaching more likely — and profitable — across the continent. Illegal ivory can be passed off as legal with false certificates. This makes protecting Africa’s dwindling wild elephant populations all the more difficult.
In 1930, there were an estimated 10 million elephants in Africa. Today, there are roughly 415,000.
The international ivory trade was outlawed in 1989, in a move widely credited with saving the elephant from extinction. A temporary lifting of the ban in 1998, to allow one-off sales of stockpiled ivory, caused illegal hunting to triple over a 12-year period between 1999 and 2011. That has only bolstered conservationists’ argument that any kind of trade only increases demand, which in turn feeds the black market.
Even with the ban, about 50 elephants are poached every day to feed demand in Japan, China and Southeast Asia, where ivory is valued for high-end, luxury carvings.
Still, a win is a win. These days, the natural world can use all the help it can get.