Worth more alive?

Last Saturday Kenya burned 105 tonnes of ivory and 1.35 tonnes of rhino horn. The ivory came from the tusks of 6700 elephants. If they had stood trunk to tail they would have formed a line 30 miles (50 kilometres) long. Has the Kenyan Government played into the hands of the poachers by pushing up the price of ivory, as some have claimed, or has it made a bold statement about its long-term intentions? The message it wants to send out to the world is that the elephant is #WorthMoreAlive than dead. Has it succeeded?

There can be no doubt about the publicity that the event has generated. It has featured in TV news bulletins around the world and it is all over social media. The burn has been praised by many environmental and conservation organisations but it has also been criticised by some conservationists who believe that a legitimate trade in ivory and rhino horn has an essential part to play, if poaching is to be stopped.

According to the BBC, the ivory burnt in Kenya had a reputed street value of £70 million ($100 million). Wouldn’t it have been better to have sold the ivory and spent the money on preventing poaching, as some have suggested?

The figures

Accurate figures about elephant populations and poaching are hard to find, with some interested groups picking numbers that reinforce their own particular views. Some reckon that around 20,000 African elephants are poached each year while others put the figure at more than 30,000. Either way, this is not a sustainable loss from the (generally agreed) population of between 450,000 and 500,000 elephants currently living wild in the continent.

It is thought that there were around 1.3 million elephants in Africa in 1979 when they were being poached at a rate of 75,000100,000 each year. This was clearly unsustainable and so CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) effectively banned the trade in ivory in 1989 by putting African elephants onto Appendix 1, the list of the most endangered animals and plants.

The number of elephants being poached fell significantly after this. The ban was weakly enforced originally, with governments and officials in many countries complicit in perpetuating the trade. Poaching levels did fall, however, although corruption continues to play a major role in the problem. I haven’t been able to find any figures for the number of elephants killed after the ban was implemented but, given that we are told that the number of elephants killed illegally between 2007 and 2014 doubled, and we know that the number of deaths in the latter year was between 20,000 and 30,000, it would be reasonable to assume that the figure was around 10,000 – 15,000, a fall of 80 – 90%.

The argument for permitting governments to licence the sale of ivory and rhino horn

Supporters of a limited trade argue that increasing the supply of ivory to the market would drive the price down, making it less attractive to criminals, while at the same time raising much needed funds for some of the poorest nations in the World. They suggest, too, that increasing the supply of ivory from legal sources would decrease demand for illegally sourced tusks. In 1999 and 2008 CITES bowed to pressure from certain African countries to lift the ban and permit one-off sales. Immediately after these events, the number of elephants killed by poachers fell, giving credence to the argument that permitting limited sales would reduce the threat from poaching.

The argument against ever permitting these products to be sold

Those opposed to any trade in ivory and rhino horn point out that the argument above, about demand, might be true if the size of the market was constant, but there is a growing middle class in China and the Far East with an apparently insatiable appetite for ivory products, meaning that demand is increasing. There is a body of opinion that believes that increasing the supply of ivory further increases that demand. This is backed up by the fact that, a couple of years after CITES permitted sales of ivory, the number of elephants killed by poachers increased. In fact, after the 2008 sale the numbers doubled. And that figure has been increasing ever since. Also, they point to the fall in the number of elephants being poached after CITES introduced the ban in 1989, saying this is evidence that the ban has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of elephants, since then.

What happens in practice?

In Africa opinion is divided. East African countries tend to support a total ban, while many southern African countries oppose it. It is worth noting that those countries that oppose a total ban, generate considerable revenues from hunting.

Tourists require a greater financial investment than hunters

Tourists require a greater financial investment than hunters

Kenya, in burning the ivory, has implied that it will oppose any future attempts to permit one-off sales. It had considered, therefore, that its stockpile was worthless and keeping it was an expensive waste of money and resources. (While it existed, the stockpile had to be guarded to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.)

Some would argue that Kenya can afford to do this because it has a huge tourist industry, worth £1.6 billion ($2.35 billion), about 2.5% of its GDP, in 2014. The industry employs more than half a million people (about 2.5% of Kenya’s adult population). To them the ivory is definitely worth more alive.

Other countries are not so sure that the same argument applies in their cases. Kenya’s tourist industry evolved throughout the 20th Century. Other countries are starting from scratch or restarting after periods of conflict. Tourists these days have high expectations. Mass tourism involves a huge investment in infrastructure and people. Lodges have to be built, water and electricity have to be provided, sewage has to be dealt with, roads need to be maintained, staff have to be trained, and so on.

Many places have discovered, however, that they can improve their profits by providing a smaller number of tourists with a more expensive, exclusive, luxury experience. However, this still costs a lot to set up.

Others have found that they can charge even more money to an even smaller number of people by permitting hunting on their land. They can make a living by having a smaller operation, with simpler and hence cheaper camps. This income is threatened if the killing of certain animals is made illegal or, when such killing is permitted, if foreign hunters are unable to take their trophies home with them because of bans in transporting products from endangered wildlife.

Was Kenya right to burn the ivory and, if so, can other countries do the same?

Many of the people who run hunting operations are opposed to Kenya’s action. They argue that the money they make from rich hunters finances their conservation and breeding programmes. Banning the sales of ivory and rhino horn, they say, would put them out of business and hence increase the chance that elephants will die out in the wild rather than reducing it.

Personally, I think that they’re wrong. I believe that the Kenyan model is the way forward. It takes more effort and more investment but the evidence, that permitting the sales of ivory increases poaching, is so overwhelming that the alternative would inevitably lead to a world without elephants and rhinos. That world would be a poorer place, both financially and in people’s experiences.

The World would be a poorer place if elephants became extinct

The World would be a poorer place if elephants became extinct

Permitting a limited trade in wildlife products produces a smokescreen behind which the illegal trade can flourish. If there is a system whereby legally obtained products are certificated, then those certificates can be made available to the illegal trade too, through corruption, theft or forgery, making it much more difficult to identify the illegal products.

This is why other countries have to take a similar stance to Kenya. Ivory traders need to know that there will never again be any legal sales of these products to help them conceal movements of their own stockpiles.

To be fair to them, other countries have been burning their stockpiles. In March Malawi set fire to 2.6 tonnes of ivory, having initially been prevented from doing so by Tanzania, a country with its own massive poaching problem (it lost two thirds of its elephants in just five years). Last year, Ethiopia, Congo, Mozambique, the US and even China burnt some of their stockpiles too.

Mozambique belatedly recognised that continuing to store confiscated ivory is a high-risk strategy. Last year it very publically announced the confiscation of 1.3 tonnes of ivory and rhino horn (the rhino is extinct in Mozambique so these, almost certainly, had been poached across the border, in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park) only to have some of the rhino horns stolen from the police compound less than a fortnight later.

Rhino horn where it should be found - on the end of a rhino's nose

Rhino horn where it should be found – on the end of a rhino’s nose

In the end, however, the only way to stop poaching is to reduce the demand for ivory and rhino horn. Reducing demand, reducing human–elephant conflict and managing the destruction caused by large herds of elephants are beyond the scope of this blog, but they are major issues that can’t be ignored, so I will return to them in the future.

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