Rethinking the Ivory Trade
June 2013, Volume 11-3

A recent article “Rethinking Ivory: Why Trade in Tusks Won’t Go Away” by : John Fredrick Walker resonates well with the editorial in this addition of African Indaba. Walker takes the reader through the events surrounding the burning of ivory stockpiles in Kenya and Gabon and the affect that these had on illegal trafficking in ivory.  These high profile media events were supposed to send a strong message “…to poachers and illegal traders…” but on reflection appear to have had little impact. Illegal poaching of ivory has continued to escalate, even in Kenya where top officials in Kenya Wildlife Services and influential NGOs have been implicated.  As Walker points out, elephant conservation is not simple and current strategies of burning ivory stockpiles and advocating for ivory trade bans have shown to be ineffective in stopping elephant killings.

June_p3Instead, elephant poaching has become more sophisticated and now involves criminal gangs who work in collusion with corrupt wildlife officials. And all because the demand for ivory has outstripped supply.  The plight of elephants was hotly debated at the CITES conference in Bangkok, with many animal advocates laying the failure to stop poaching on CITES. On the positive side, what emerged from this CITES meeting was the grudgingly acknowledgment that if elephant conservation is to succeed, then a workable system to manage the trade in ivory has to be developed. To this end a working group of African and Asian nations has been established to investigate and propose “a process of trade in ivory” that is to be presented to member states for approval in three years time.

But, unlike with the rhino horn that that involves just one country, the trade in ivory involves several
African countries all with different and opposing views.  Add to this the many animal groups who firmly believe that by killing off the trade permanently, the killing of elephants will stop. But this is wishful thinking since the demand for ivory is deeply embedded in many cultures.

The task of this working group will therefore be extremely challenging for not only will it have to
deal with demand side of the equation but also with the fact that Africa’s elephant population naturally
produces sufficient ivory, an estimated 100 tons per annum, as a result of natural mortality and legitimate management actions. This ivory, termed “conservation ivory” by Walker, when combined with the existing stockpiles that exist is sufficient to meet the trade demand and thus is a legitimate source for legal trade.

The question is whether it is necessary to wait three years to get an answer.  Like the rhino horn,
there is no guarantee that the proposal advanced by the working group will be accepted irrespective of how sophisticated the trade agreement may be. Yet the mechanism to initiate this trade has already been put in place through a study commissioned by the CITES Secretariat in 2012 (see “Decision- Making Mechanisms and Necessary Conditions for a Future Trade in African Elephant Ivory”).  Any delays in opening the legal trade in ivory will only serve to increase the demand and strengthen the black market which in turn means a further escalation in poaching.

As with the rhino horn, it is time to accept that a well-regulated legal trade in ivory should be re- opened sooner rather than later.