WASHINGTON, May 11, 2015—The recent growth of the ivory trade and high demand for ivory products is decimating elephant populations in Africa. According to several sources, elephants may face extinction within the next decade.
While many argue that a strictly controlled legal ivory market is possible and even desirable, most conservationists are beginning to agree that, given the current rate of killing and the level of corruption inherent in the ivory trade, the only way to save these animals from extinction is an outright ban on ivory on an international, national, and state level.
In addition to banning the ivory trade, changes on several different planes must take place in Africa and around the world in order to save the elephant. These range from closing legal loopholes to providing alternative economic opportunities and changing deeply-held cultural and societal beliefs about ivory and ivory products.
Even though African elephants have been hunted for their tusks for centuries, the late 1970s, with the availability of automatic weapons amid government corruption, brought on a massive rise in killing of elephants for their ivory tusks, leading to a huge reduction in elephant populations. There were an estimated 1.3 million African elephants in 1979; by 1989, less than half (600,000) of African elephants were left.
Today, there are between 434,000 and 684,000 African elephants in the wild. However, some argue the real number could be as low as 250,000.
While habitat destruction and hostile encounters with humans (elephants can trample, raid and destroy crops) account for a portion of elephant deaths, the bulk of the killing comes from the ivory trade.
Poaching has increased significantly since 2008, more than doubling globally since 2007. For example, an estimated 100,000 African elephants were poached between 2010 and 2012. Elephants are now killed at the rate of over 35,000 per year, 96 elephants every day, one every 15 minutes.
In 1989 the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed the African and Asian elephant under Appendix I, banning international trade in ivory. Several states, including Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Malawi, voted against the resolution on the ban. Hong Kong (the major ivory importer at the time) expressed formal reservations to the resolution.
By arguing that their countries required the revenue from legal ivory trade to fund conservation efforts, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe persuaded CITES to “down-list” their elephant populations to Appendix II, which allows limited trade using export quotas.
Additionally, CITES approved two “one-off” sales of ivory in 1999 and 2008. In 1999 Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe auctioned what represented 5,446 tusks to Japan for $5 million, reportedly used for conservation efforts. In 2008, these countries were joined by South Africa to sell 102 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan for over $15 million, also ostensibly used for conservation.
“To some conservationists, these sales were disastrous, spurring the current poaching frenzy by keeping the markets active, confusing consumers as to what was legal versus illegal ivory, and offering a loophole for laundering illegal ivory into markets,” writes Christina Russo for National Geographic. “To others, the correlation is unproven.”
The results of the CITES ban and the one-off sales have been mixed. While the CITES ban has reduced killing and illegal ivory traffic in some African countries, poaching and commerce in ivory has increased in others.
The Ivory Trade Review Group (ITRG) reported that CITES controls of ivory trade were easy to elude, with only 16 of the 35 African members of CITES complying with the system. According to ITRG, poachers and illegal traders found it easy to evade CITES regulations by altering trade routes or carving raw ivory to reclassify it as “worked ivory.”
Today, poaching and ivory trafficking has reached its highest levels in 25 years, according to the Born Free Foundation. Poaching has also become increasingly lucrative, with the price of ivory jumping from $5 per kilogram in 1989 to $2,100 per kilogram in 2014 in China. Poaching rings are often well-funded, sophisticated international operations that employ helicopters, GPS equipment, automatic weapons, and night-vision goggles to locate and kill elephants for their tusks.
While the listing of elephants in CITES was a significant step, it is clear that it is not sufficient, and those who want to save the elephants from extinction face a number of obstacles including political, social, cultural and economic circumstances that make conservation very difficult.
CITES only regulates international trade in ivory and does not affect or regulate trade within a country’s borders, which allows the ivory market to thrive within a nation. These markets cater to tourists as well as local consumers. However, these local markets are also open to wholesalers who purchase raw ivory to re-sell in other countries.
Several nations lack laws that require traders within their borders to present documentation assuring their ivory does not come from illegal hunting. This provides poachers and carvers with an unregulated market in which to sell their ivory.
“Once illegal ivory has entered the legal trade, it is difficult or impossible for enforcement officers to know what is legal and illegal,” writes Elizabeth L. Bennet in an article published the journal Conservation Biology.
Weak border controls also encourage poaching in neighboring countries. Additionally, elephants often cross national boundaries and migrate between countries that have different regulations, increasing their risk of being poached when they cross into countries with unregulated local markets.
In a 2009 study published in the British Journal of Criminology, authors Andrew Lemieux and Ronald Clarke found that countries with unregulated ivory markets experienced an average 59 percent decline in elephant populations between 1989 (when the international ban was adopted) and 2007. In contrast, countries that did not have a have an unregulated ivory market experienced an average 65 percent increase in elephant populations during the same period.
“With the exception of Mozambique, every country with an unregulated market saw a decline in their elephant populations from 1989 to 2007,” note Lemieux and Clarke.
China recently implemented a one-year moratorium on imports of ivory carvings to study the effects of the ban on poaching. Many, however are skeptical of China’s motivations. Several elephant and wildlife advocates have voiced their concern.
“They fear that the Chinese government, which has openly called for relaxing international ivory trade limits, will use the yearlong moratorium as an excuse to say a ban failed to stop poaching and then call for the reopening of the international trade in ivory at the next major Cites conference, to be held in 2016,” said Dan Levin in a recent New York Times article.
The U.S. is second only to China in terms of the size of its ivory market. In 2014, President Obama introduced the “National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking” and announced a commercial ban on ivory trade in the U.S. The proposal does not ban trophy hunters from killing elephants in Africa, but aims to set limits on the number of trophies they are allowed to bring back. It also contains several exceptions, including for items over 100 years old, and other pre-CITES items.
The ban was immediately opposed by the National Rifle Association, (NRA) which stated on its website, “the effects of the ivory ban would be disastrous for American gun owners and sportsmen.”
The NRA opposes the limit on how many trophies sport hunters may bring back to the U.S., as well as the ban on the sale of items made with ivory, including rifle and shotgun sights and sight inserts, ornamental inlays in rifle and shotgun stocks, grips on custom handguns, as well as ivory used in related accessories such as knife and gun cleaning equipment and tools.
“Sale of all of those items could be banned if the Obama administration’s proposal goes into effect as stated,” states the NRA Ivory Ban Fact Sheet.
The NRA Fact Sheet bases its objections of the ban on the assumption that “most ivory in the U.S. was legally imported and that its sale in the U.S. would not increase poaching.”
This, however, is far from the truth. In 2014, Victor Gordon, the owner of a Philadelphia art store, was sentenced to 30 months in prison and fined $150,000 for smuggling over one ton of African elephant ivory worth over $1 million. Gordon was found guilty of staining ivory items to make them look older and falsifying receipts to circumvent trade regulations.
Gordon may have been one of the most egregious violators, but he is not a rarity. A 2015 report commission by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that up to 90 percent of ivory in Los Angeles and 80 percent of ivory in San Francisco is likely illegal.
Illegal ivory makes its way to the U.S. hidden among cargo. Smugglers rely on the fact that there are less than 330 Fish and Wildlife inspectors and agents patrol the largest U.S. ports. This is a painfully low number considering wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest global black market (the first three are drugs, guns and humans).
“For every crate with illegal ivory, rhinoceros horn or some other banned product crafted from a threatened or endangered animal that is discovered, about 10 get by,” reported The Washington Post in 2014.
Some legislators also opposed the ban. In July a pair of bills aimed at limiting the ban—the Lawful Ivory Protection Act of 2014 (S. 2587/H.R. 5052), sponsored by Senator Lamar Alexander (R,TN), and the African Elephant Conservation and Legal Ivory Possession Act of 2015 (H.R. 697), sponsored by Representative Don Young (R, AK)—were introduced but failed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is currently working to implement the commercial ban. Additionally, New York and New Jersey have recently passed legislation restricting ivory and rhino horn sales. Ten states have a bill before their legislature, eight states are considering legislation but no bill has been introduced, legislation has stalled in six states and 25 states have no legislative action concerning ivory at this time.
“The groundswell of state action shows that an issue long thought of as the responsibility of national governments and international organizations is becoming more grassroots and personal,” says Laurel Neme for National Geographic.
However, despite growing opposition to the ivory trade, a recent study found that Craigslist plays a major role in the domestic trade of ivory, despite federal and local regulations. The five-day investigation in 28 U.S. cities, found 522 postings offering 615 ivory and suspected ivory products with a combined list price of $1,429,151. Even though Craigslist policy states that posting must comply with all applicable laws and prohibits the sale of animal parts, only 21 of the 522 posts offered documentation to prove the item was not illegal.
The study authors extrapolated their findings for the entire year, estimating 6,600 items with a list price over $15.3 million—and this is just for 28 of the over 420 U.S. Craigslist sub-sites.
Going beyond The ban
Unfortunately, commercial bans may not be enough to end poaching, or may not work in time to save the African elephant from extinction.
“Addressing corruption throughout a trade network that permeates countries across the globe will take decades, if it can ever be achieved,” writes Elizabeth L. Bennet.
Given current rates of killing, elephants may not have decades. To save elephants from extinction, in addition to a global ban on ivory, several other important changes need to take place in countries on both sides of the supply chain.
In Africa, it is important to engage local communities in protection and conservation efforts. However, this can often be very difficult in poverty-stricken communities and in areas affected by civil war and government corruption. In many communities, elephants are not seen as a resource worth protecting, but as a source of food or a threat to crops. Additionally, some local residents resent the restrictions on farming and grazing imposed on them to protect the elephants.
According to the ITRG, the communities that live in the places where the ivory is coming from receive very little of the total revenue earned from the ivory trade. Instead, most of the profit goes to professional poaching rings. According to an American University study, “ivory sold in Zaire, Congo, Gabon, and Cameroon earned only 10 to 20 per cent of the value obtained upon resale in Hong Kong.”
Even though tourism can often bring considerable income to an area, it may be difficult for local communities to perceive the value because they may not directly benefit from tourism income. A large part of the income from taxes on tourism may be lost to corruption, or the government may use it for broader programs rather than investment in the local community or expanding tourism. Tour operators based in other countries also benefit without directly investing much locally. Additionally, tourism may employ local residents, but in many instances, local people do not have the skills required for many of these jobs.
“Indeed, it is possible to make the argument that eco-tourism brings the most direct benefits to a handful of wealthy people from the developed world and some indirect benefits to the world at large through the maintenance of bio-diversity,” state Lemieux and Clarke. “These benefits are subsidized by poor people in the destination countries whose livelihoods are constrained through controls on farming, grazing and the taking of bush meat, and whose crops are sometime destroyed by the animals tourists come to see.”
For this reason, many believe that tourism is not enough to significantly curb poaching. Without producing tangible benefits to local people, the perceived need to resort to poaching will still be present. Providing alternative economic opportunities to local communities is a challenge, but one that must be addressed if elephants are going to survive into the next few decades.
Other solutions include further research on humane crop-raiding prevention and other ways in which humans can coexist with elephants.
On the demand side, deeply-held social and cultural beliefs must be addressed and changed in order to ensure elephant survival.
In China, demand for ivory is growing as the middle class grows and is able to acquire items perceived as status symbols. Additionally, education is paramount, as many people do not realize that ivory comes from dead elephants. A Chinese survey found that close to 70 percent of respondents thought that ivory fell out naturally, like teeth, and did not know it came from a dead elephant.
In the U.S. groups like the NRA politicize the problem, relying on disproven assumptions that confound the issue of elephants being illegally hunted to extinction by fanning fears that a law designed to combat illegal wildlife trade would be “disastrous” to American gun owners.
Changing minds and hearts in the U.S. may be as difficult as it is in China. Elephant advocates in the U.S. face the challenge of changing a deeply-felt conviction among politically powerful adversaries who believe that not having an ivory grip on their gun would be far more “disastrous” for gun owners than for the elephant that lost its life for it.
Fortunately, advocates are succeeding in ending the ivory trade in a growing number of states as Americas begin to realize that no matter how “challenging and expensive,” saving elephants for generations to come is our duty as stewards of our planet.