Andreas Späth

Legal ivory sales encourage elephant poaching

2016-06-20 09:35

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Elephants are in trouble. According to the Born Free Foundation, more than 24 000 of them were butchered by poachers last year alone (and over 129 000 since 2012). That’s not a sustainable rate of attrition and if the slaughter continues, elephants will disappear from more and more of their natural range and eventually face extinction.

In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), instituted a ban on the international trade in ivory to protect the species (domestic trade is regulated by individual countries themselves).

But some people think that criminalising the ivory trade is counterproductive and may, in fact, be a central cause of the poaching epidemic. They suggest that if the international trade was legalised, competitive market pressures would displace ivory sales on the black market and massively reduce incentives for poaching.

To test this hypothesis, CITES has authorised two experimental, legal ivory sales. In 1999, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia were allowed to sell some of their national ivory stockpiles to Japan. Unfortunately, no mechanisms to monitor elephant poaching and ivory smuggling were in place at the time and the effect of this one-time sale could not be assessed rigorously.

In 2008, CITES approved a second legal sale. This time, over 100 tonnes of stockpiled ivory from Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa were sold to Japan and China. One main difference of this second sale was that by now, CITES had established its programme for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), consisting of 79 sites throughout Asia and Africa which have been collecting data on elephant poaching since 2002.

Using these data along with records of global seizures of smuggled ivory, two US-based researchers, Solomon Hsiang and Nitin Sekar, have just published a study that evaluates the impact of the 2008 ivory sale on elephant populations. Their conclusions are telling and ought to put an end to any arguments for further legal ivory sales.

Hsiang and Sekar found that the single sale of stockpiled ivory in 2008 resulted in “an abrupt, significant, permanent, robust, and geographically widespread increase in the production of illegal ivory through elephant poaching” along with “a corresponding 2009 increase in seizures of raw ivory contraband leaving African countries”.

According to their work, the announcement of the legal ivory sale corresponds with an abrupt increase in illegal ivory production of about 66% across Africa and Asia as well as an estimated 71% rise in ivory smuggling out of Africa.

In stark contrast to what proponents of legal ivory sales had predicted, the event thus led to a substantial increase in elephant poaching and ivory smuggling. Hsiang and Sekar note that the data indicate that this was not linked to increased affluence (and therefore ivory buying-power) in China.

They conclude that their results “are most consistent with the theory that the legal sale of ivory triggered an increase in black market ivory production by increasing consumer demand and/or reducing the cost of supplying black market ivory, and these effects dominated any competitive displacement that occurred”.

Based on these findings, you’d think that the debate over allowing international ivory sales has been settled. They’re counterproductive and damaging to elephant populations.

Clearly the governments of Zimbabwe and Namibia don’t think so. In preparation for the seventeenth CITES Convention of the Parties (CoP17) in Johannesburg in September, they have submitted a proposal that would allow them to ask for permission to sell more of their ivory stocks. Let’s hope that this plan is soundly defeated at the meeting.

As an aside that should be of considerable interest to South Africans who’ve been following the arguments around the possible legalisation of the international trade in rhino horn, Hsiang and Sekar indicate that their “findings are likely to extend to markets structurally similar to ivory markets, such as those for products from other slow-growing, slow-breeding, or low-population density species like rhinoceroses and tigers”.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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