Opinion: Walking the International Talk to Help Elephants


By Katarzyna Nowak, A Voice for Elephants

Date Published
Is the new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policy of a blanket domestic ivory ban a “declaration of political war” that “criminalizes American citizens and kills elephants”?

This is the extreme view expressed by Doug Bandow in Forbes magazine in March 2014 and taken up again in yesterday’s post here by Andrew Wyatt and Bandow, who seem to discount the real struggle happening on the ground in Africa. (See related: “Opinion: Blood Ivory and More Dead Elephants.”)

The recently enacted USFWS strategy is aimed primarily at driving down illegal trade within U.S. national borders. Secondarily, but importantly, it makes the U.S. better positioned to engage in constructive diplomatic dialogue with other nations facing the problem of high illegal ivory flows by practicing what it preaches.

Top-down regulations can quickly shift the landscape within a single nation—particularly if done in tandem with other countries. This could make a real difference for a species in jeopardy (even if social conservatives in the U.S. don’t like it).

Take Japan, where top-down regulations throughout the 1980s played a significant role in quite rapidly driving the volume of ivory imports down by two-thirds or more. Demand in the command economies of East Asia could be reduced through such top-down regulation to seal loopholes and prevent the laundering of illegal stock through legal stores, as with the banning of shark fin soup at Chinese official banquets, driving demand down by 50 percent.

Another obvious mechanism is to continue to change consumer habits by raising public awareness through mass and social media.

Businesses—small and big—also have a role to play. However, the domestic ivory ban in the U.S. has been described as a crush to small businesses in a blog of Bucks Business Law, even though undoubtedly U.S. businesses will experience fewer repercussions than businesses in China, where big business and entrepreneurs are supporting a government ban on ivory.

This same blog goes on to claim that, “Painfully absent from this discussion is the impact on businesses and art collectors in the U.S., who have always followed the law.”

Have they? The noted case of ivory smuggling by a CEO of a piano company in Atlanta, Georgia comes to mind. This case reminded us that admiration of “old” ivory may be transferred to new ivory.

Big recent strides in East Asia include the Chinese public pushing for a full ivory trade ban, andJapan accepting a court ban on Antarctic whaling. Respectively, these activities—ivory carving and whaling—have much longer traditions in China and Japan than in the U.S.

As one of the global leaders in conservation, the U.S. should not only be willing to make the same concessions but be at the forefront of efforts to save keystone species.

Americans have made elephant conservation a priority, and there’s much public support for the anti-ivory bill, for example in New York and in Hawaii. Elephant protection is on the agendas of Obama, Kerry, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The same is not yet true for China. To engage high-level Chinese authorities on this issue, to encourage and support them in decisions that tighten regulations and put into effect state-organized demand reduction strategies, America needs to practice what it preaches. At least one public survey in China has indicated that the biggest influence on consumer purchase of ivory is government regulation.

The illegal trade in ivory is global; the actions of one country, even one state, are tied to the whole trade chain. Actions in one place can have a positive influence in other places where the total volume of trade must absolutely come down for elephants to remain on the planet.

Bandow and others dole out advice for China and then complain when their own country cannot continue to use, trade, or ship their own ivory pieces. Why should China restrict itself while others face no restrictions?

Critics also fail to appreciate that the USFWS response is a measured one aimed at reversing the current situation by reverting back to standard ESA protection, the most rational and precautionary way forward given that elephants are now so imperiled.

Bandow has depicted elephants as “animals that destroy everything before them,” discounting elephants’ important and well-demonstrated influence on shaping natural environments—as “mega-gardeners” of forests and well-diggers in arid habitats, they maintain and likely increase biodiversity in these ecosystems.

Such negative description of elephants also fails to acknowledge the number of tourists—and tourist dollars—that elephants draw every year, contributing in a major way to African tourism sectors and economies.

According to Bandow, “international activists, groups, and governments” are “hectoring African states” rather than “developing effective conservation strategies.”

This outlook discounts the positive effects that organizations such as LAGA, PAMS, IFAW, WCS,STE, and Friedkin Conservation Fund, to name just a few, are having on combating poaching, improving law enforcement, and building capacity in local communities.

To suggest that illicit ivory seized from poachers be sold is flawed—this would legitimize illegal ivory that has been illegal for 25 years and which nation states (including China and the U.S.) are now destroying in an effort synonymous with that of the USFWS—an effort to combat the trade head-on by, among other things, delivering a clear message that illicit ivory has no value. Would Bandow suggest legitimizing other illegal contraband to supply a demand?

Finally, Bandow describes ivory carving as essentially having died out in the West but conveniently forgets to add that it nearly died out in the East prior to the last one-off CITES-approved ivory sale in 2008, which essentially revived the carving industry in China, fueling demand and consequently poaching. Now an estimated 70 percent of illegal ivory goes to China, laundered through many of the legal channels.

There is no quick and affordable way to date ivory—thus no financially viable immediate method available to prevent new ivory from mixing with vintage ivory, except for a comprehensive effort to stop moving, trading, and selling it.

The real “political war” to which Bandow referred in Forbes is happening in Africa, not in America.

There is nothing beautiful about extinction, especially of a keystone species whose complete absence would not only jeopardize ecosystem functioning and biodiversity but also tourism markets, jobs, and national GDPs.

What is “criminal” is to fail to protect the African elephant to the requisite level in the context of this burgeoning poaching crisis for the sake of maintaining a loophole that permits the exchange of a discrete amount of ivory artifacts, held by a relatively small number of individuals, but runs the risk of being a significant cover for illegal laundering of new ivory, particularly given smugglers’ efforts to conceal recently poached ivory as antique.

The USFWS policy was not deliberated lightly. Behind it is a drive to reduce ambiguity, making commercial ivory trade unacceptable in the U.S. and beyond, as emphasized in the New York Times by Judith McHale and David Hayes, chairwoman and vice chairman of President Obama’s Wildlife Trafficking Advisory Council.

The USFWS is trying to phase out a “commodity” that is leading to the demise of a species and the ruination of tourism industries, which bring in far more GDP over decades than the sale of any ivory.

The USFWS strategy will focus energy in the right places (anti-poaching and demand reduction), instead of wasting resources on trying to tell old and new ivory apart. The USFWS is not asking people to destroy their heirlooms, pistols, and musical instruments; rather to put a (likely temporary) halt on their movement in the absence of permits, while also shifting our collective view of ivory’s commercial value.

The USFWS is also banning the import of elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe on the grounds that ”additional killing of elephants in these countries, even if legal, is not sustainable and is not currently supporting conservation efforts.”

President Obama’s executive mandate to halt poaching must continue to exert the necessary pressure that makes everyone responsible stakeholders, including American musicians, gun owners, and antique collectors who are empathetic to the plight of African elephants and can hopefully appreciate the full magnitude of the current poaching crisis.

We must all walk the talk.

The writing of this counter to Bandow’s article in Forbes was supported by the Conservation Action Trust.

Dr. Katarzyna Nowak is a junior research fellow at Durham University (UK) and a research associate at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa (RSA). In 2008, together with Dr. Trevor Jones, she established the Southern Tanzania Elephant Project (formerly Udzungwa Elephant Project) to monitor and protect the elephant populations of the Udzungwa Mountains and Ruaha National Park and to work with communities toward human-elephant coexistence. Her current research is also focused on how cognitively complex, wild mammals deal with anthropogenic risk in a “landscape of fear.”