Destroying ivory stocks and banning all legal sales is not the best solution to conserving the world’s elephants
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Nick Herbert, writing in The Times, claims the best way to save the elephant is to ban all ivory sales and destroy stocks of ivory. Such a policy is likely to be counterproductive.
The data do not support Nick’s claim that legal sales of ivory lead to increased poaching. While data on numbers of illegally poached elephants is far from comprehensive, the data that exist - from TRAFFIC - suggest that poaching actually declined immediately after a 1999 large sale of ivory. Plausibly, the legal supply of ivory to some extent crowded out the illegal supply at that time.
The same data show that the recent upswing in poaching began around 2005, 3 years before the 2008 sale – which is demonised by a small group of conservationists as being responsible for the rise of poaching.
Demand for ivory does seem to have increased in the past decade, but there are many possible reasons for this. Proponents of a trade ban claim that it is a result of the temporarily low price following the legal sale to China and Japan. An alternative explanation is that people in East Asia have recently become much wealthier, driving both demand and prices up. (Ivory is a luxury good: it is highly responsive to changes in income: as income rises, demand rises disproportionately.) Indeed, prices of ivory are now much higher than before the ban, indicating that demand is extremely robust and quite insensitive to price changes. And poachers are responding to this demand by killing more elephants. To counter this, the incentives for conservation must be increased.
At present, humans and elephants compete with one another for the use of land. Elephants are large animals that consume huge quantities of vegetation on a daily basis. Crops and elephants cannot readily coexist. Much of the reduction in elephant populations around the world is explicable by this simple fact. So, those of us concerned about elephant conservation have been searching for ways to enable humans and elephants to coexist in sustainable ways. That means enabling the people who share their land with elephants to earn a better living from elephant conservation than from the alternative land uses that would entail removal of elephants.
While eco-tourism may contribute substantially to local incomes in some places, it is not clear that it is capable on its own of sustaining the large number of elephants now in Africa and Asia. An eco-tourism-only approach might only be feasible for a small global elephant population. The sale of ivory has the potential to increase income from conservation projects in areas where people share land with elephants. Since demand for ivory is strong in countries such as Japan, China and Vietnam, where wealthy people are willing to spend large sums on ivory, permitting trade with people in those countries would in principle increase the amount that people living with elephants receive in compensation.
Historically, one objection to legal trade is that it was difficult to distinguish between well managed, legally traded ivory and poached ivory. However, it is now feasible to distinguish between legal and illegal sources of ivory, using genetic markers which can distinguish the range state of the elephants, thereby allaying concerns that poachers would be able to profit from selling their ill gotten gains through legal channels. So, if restrictions on trade were to remain for range states that chose not to manage their elephants sustainably (or – like the DRC – simply lack the institutions to establish such a system), then it would be possible to resume legal trade in sustainably harvested ivory without threatening elephants in states that have unsustainable populations.