The Ivory Market: Keep It Closed, or Open It Up?


In 1989, after a decade in which nearly one million African elephants were killed for their tusks, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade in ivory. For years the treaty showed signs of success, as the price of ivory collapsed, and with it elephant poaching. But after hitting a nadir, the illegal ivory trade has exploded once again. Some conservationists have begun to argue for a legal trade in ivory, saying it could help stem elephant poaching. Others warn that legalized ivory will only fuel the frenzy for tusks. Could a legal ivory trade actually protect elephants? Daniel Stiles, a Kenya-based conservationist, says Yes. Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society warns that it’s a dangerous idea.

Only Legal Ivory Can Stop Poaching

by Daniel Stiles

Daniel Stiles, PhD is an independent consultant who has carried out extensive research on the ivory trade and the causes of elephant poaching. He is a member of the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group.

“How about no more ivory trade, and no more deaths of these intelligent peaceful creatures due to poaching?”

Comments like the one above, posted as a response to an article advocating a legal ivory trade, reflect a widely held sentiment in the West. They all make the assumption that elephants have to be illegally killed for there to be trade in ivory. It is a false assumption.

Another false assumption is that banning the legal ivory trade will stop poaching. If I believed it were that simple, I would be leading the charge to close legal ivory markets. But it’s not that simple. After studying the issue closely, I’ve come to the conclusion that a limited legal trade in ivory is likely to help elephants more than the current prohibitionist regime.

A coalition of US and European groups is encouraging worldwide domestic trade bans on elephant ivory and destruction of national ivory stockpiles as a strategy to save elephants from extinction. Regrettably, this “Stop Ivory” approach reflects an overly simplistic, Western viewpoint founded in animal rights ideology. It inflicts questionable policies on African countries, with disastrous consequences for both Africa’s people and wildlife.

The ban-ivory-everywhere policy pursues a top-down, authoritarian approach that aims to protect wildlife through prohibiting trade, increasing law enforcement, and constricting supply by confiscation and destruction. It recalls the “War on Drugs” – and we have seen how well the War on Drugs has worked. The results have been the rise of brutal criminal gangs, widespread corruption of government officials, and increasing use of illegal drugs. The complete ivory ban strategy relies on the same prohibitionist thinking, without considering the alternative of regulated use and taxation accompanied by consumer education to lower demand, a strategy which has shown success in reducing tobacco use.

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In a Corrupt World, a Legal Trade Undermines Conservation

by Elizabeth L. Bennett

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?

When considering this, we should recognize two characteristics of elephant ivory.

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