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In a Corrupt World, a Legal Trade Undermines Conservation

-Elizabeth L. Bennett, PhD is a vice president at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Ivory – to trade, or not to trade? With elephant populations declining rapidly across large swathes of their range due to poaching, answering that question correctly is vital to the animal’s future.

African elephants, from which most of the world’s ivory comes, are facing their worst crisis since 1989, when international commercial trade in their tusks was banned. The illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007 and is now more than three times greater than it was in 1998. In 2011 alone, some 35,000 elephants were killed for their ivory.

Forest elephants have suffered the most dramatic losses. Between 2002 and 2011, their population declined by 62 percent. Populations of African savannah elephants in eastern and southern Africa are under growing threat as the wave of poaching spreads. Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania lost 66 percent of its elephants from 2009 to 2013. In addition to the devastating impact on elephant populations, illegal trade is also detrimental to local livelihoods. According to one estimate, income from tourism-related jobs during an elephant’s lifetime is 76 times higher than from a one-off sale of its tusks.

The current slaughter is due to a combination of burgeoning demand from East Asia, vastly increased infrastructure links between rural Africa and East Asia, and the relatively recent involvement of organized-crime networks in the trade.

One proposed solution is to establish a legal ivory trade. The rationale is that legalization could allow for more effective control of the trade; legal sales could satisfy demand, thereby reducing uncontrolled killing; and the funds generated could be used to support elephant conservation. Numerous plant and animal species are subject to a managed trade that, in many cases, is sustainable. Could this work for elephants and their ivory?

photo of an elephant group in a grassland photo of a dead elephant, vultures attendingphotos Boyd Norton, flickr user Meaduva

When considering this, we should recognize two characteristics of elephant ivory. First, it is of high value per unit mass. The economic value to the hunter is great, with a single kill equivalent to a region’s average annual earnings. Second, elephants breed extremely slowly, with the longest gestation of any mammal to produce single offspring. While the incentives to kill animals are high, the supply of tusks is biologically constrained.

Within that context, effective management of a legal ivory trade requires that systems be in place to ensure that illegal ivory cannot be laundered into the legal market. First, the supply of legal ivory entering the market must be tightly controlled. This means that illegal hunting must be prevented; legal hunting must be well managed with scientifically based quotas; and only designated animals must removed. Although feasible in theory, meeting these requirements is challenging because ivory’s high value creates a powerful incentive to hunt illegally.

Second, the trade itself must be regulated with tightly controlled chains of custody from source to consumer. These management systems must be robust enough to prevent leakage of illegal ivory into the trade chain. Again, this is feasible in theory. Genetic testing techniques could be used to identify individual items, but only if marking systems were tamper proof. This would necessitate transparency, good governance, and strong enforcement systems throughout the trade chain.

One factor undermines efforts to establish the good management systems essential for any legal trade: corruption among government officials. Corruption is pervasive along the entire commodity chain, from elephant range countries to some of the main consumer countries. Bribery opportunities are exploited at all points in the trade chain, and enable the laundering of illegal ivory into legal markets. Officials are paid to turn a blind eye to poaching and trafficking; to alter CITES or other permits so that, through fraudulent paperwork, an illegal item seems legal; and to falsify certification at the point of processing or end point of sale.

Wildlife management is particularly susceptible to subversion by corrupt officials because most wildlife officials are poorly paid and wildlife crime is generally not considered serious. This encourages bribes, especially when dealing with wildlife products of high value. Inspections at any point in the trade chain can be a site for bribery. In some circumstances, increasing the number of enforcement officers merely results in more bribes. At three smuggling points on the Vietnam-China border, my organization, WCS, estimates that every day some $18,000 to $30,000 is given in bribes to border officials. Within such a system, the financial incentives to break the law outweigh those of abiding by it.

The illegal ivory trade is largely run by organized criminal networks that resort to violence to ensure that the trade can operate. Ten years ago, independent ratings of countries’ effective governance (or lack thereof) explained the poaching of African elephants better than any other factor; the situation has deteriorated since then. Governance at the national level consistently emerges as a strong predictor of elephant poaching levels according to analyses by CITES. In this context of corruption, maintaining leak-proof chains of custody is challenging.

small excerpt of a poll pageReader OpinionWhat do you think: Is it time to legalize the ivory trade?
Vote and be counted.

Once illegal ivory enters the legal trade, it is difficult or impossible for enforcement officers to know what is legal or illegal. Even without such ambiguities, enforcement of illegal wildlife trade is challenging because wildlife agencies are understaffed, undertrained, and underresourced. At some points of the trade chain, enforcement does not even lie with wildlife officials, but with customs and urban agencies whose primary job is not wildlife enforcement. Expecting such officers to be able to distinguish legal from illegal commodities is unrealistic. True, DNA testing can determine the origin of ivory and isotope testing can determine its age. But such testing involves a significant time lag between detection of the item and verification of its provenance or age, making the technologies unsuitable tools for enforcement.

Proponents of legalizing the ivory trade assert that the 1989 ban is no longer working. That assumes, however, that the 1989 ban was total. It was not. It was a ban on international commercial trade, but countries across North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia continue to have thriving legal domestic markets. Those markets facilitate the illegal trade by providing an easy front for laundering ivory. Hence, the corrupt ivory trafficking networks were not created under an ivory ban regime. They were created under a mixed regime with multiple legal domestic markets into which illegal ivory can readily be moved. It is the very presence of a legal market within a corrupt system that stimulates the slaughter of elephants. It is for this reason that various African heads of state have called on all countries to place a moratorium on all ivory sales for at least ten years.

In the long-term, corruption must be addressed because it subverts many areas of conservation. Tackling corruption that permeates countries across the globe will take decades, however. At the current rates of loss, that will be too late for wild populations of African elephants. If we are to conserve significant wild populations of the species, we have to close down all markets, both international and domestic. The only way elephants can be conserved is for laws to be clear and unambiguous so that no commercial trade of ivory is allowed.

It is naïve to think that deeply entrenched and institutionalized corruption will fade into insignificance if there were a return to a legal international trade. The whole conservation community – government and non-government – must work together to ensure that all ivory trade stops for at least ten years, or until elephant populations are no longer threatened by illegal killing.

For an opposing view, read what Daniel Stiles has to say.


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I find Dr. Stiles argument far more sensible than Dr. Bennet. When has more law enforcement ever been able to quell an illegal activity? The sad part is, they’ve been trying the whole illegal trade route for quite a while and look at how horribly unsuccessful it is. You can’t argue with the economic argument Stiles makes either. I’m sorry, but Bennet’s ideas are as antiquated as they are reckless.

By Jim on Wed, June 03, 2015 at 4:32 pm

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