For animals and for many people in countries across Africa, this has been disastrous. Small armies have been recruited, millions squandered and poachers hunted down. Local people have had to watch their gold dust – rhino horn is now more valuable per ounce than gold – burned in front of them, to make westerners feel good. A wholly ludicrous ban is imposed on ivory antiques. Yet poaching is said to be at an all-time high, driven by such publicity stunts as last April’s Kenyan bonfire of £70m of seized ivory, supposedly to “raise awareness”.
Such destruction of value merely encourages dealers in east Asia to stockpile, thus increasing the incentive to poach. If we actually want to render the rhinoceros and the elephant extinct – which given their popularity in safari parks and zoos is unlikely – policy is bang on course.
It would be nice for all of us if nobody believed rare animal products were good for their health. Demand in Japan is declining, but the market in China and Vietnam remains massive. Attempts are being made to farm the relevant species domestically. Rhinos, bears and two-thirds of all extant tigers are being farmed in China, but this cannot keep up with demand for ivory.
Big-game hunting licences are for sale in parts of Africa, but people who live in those areas are denied the much bigger return from the ivory. As a result, hunting licences in southern Africa, where elephants are still plentiful, are used for covert ivory supplies. Meanwhile farmers are told they must not kill elephants, but nor are they recompensed for the damage done by the animals to their crops. What would Wiltshire farmers say if told to allow mammoths to roam their fields because people in Africa were worried they might become extinct?
Shifting to a legal market in ivory would be painful – as with drugs it would appear to reward criminals. But allowing people in Africa to benefit from protecting endangered species is the only way to secure the future of those species. The concept of “the wild” is ever shrinking. If we try to deny poor countries the right to husband the produce of their land – as we do cows and sheep – rather than encourage them to sensible and profitable conservation, we impose costs on them, and encourage them to migrate to our countries, where we have long since got rid of elephants.
The best way to preserve these glorious animals is not to give their custodians a vested interest in poaching. The fact that ivory policy is being driven by the British royal family and well-heeled American lobbyists does not make it right. It is wrong, and grows more disastrous with every passing year.