Cape Town – The South African government refuses to destroy its ivory stockpile unlike the 25 other countries that have publically destroyed tonnes of ivory to highlight that ivory should not be traded
On the eve of World Elephant Day (12 August) and leading up to the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17), in Johannesburg next month, the debate over what to do with stockpiled ivory is creating a sharp divide between those who favour the destruction of the stockpiles and others who believe they represent valuable financial assets.
A continent divided
Although accurate figures are hard to come by, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) estimates global stockpiles, comprised of ivory from natural elephant deaths, culling programmes and confiscations from poachers and smugglers – at more than 1000 tonnes.
Since the first ever public destruction of stockpiled ivory took place in Kenya in 1989, 29 such events have been conducted in Europe, Asia, North America and Africa In April, Kenya burned over 100 tonnes of ivory in the largest single destruction event yet.
Citing concerns over the “negative consequences” of doing so, South Africa’s CITES representative, Thea Carroll, claimed earlier this year that “destroying ivory will increase its scarcity and thus drive up prices, which, in turn, will encourage more poaching and illegal trade”.
The government has repeatedly declined to disclose the size of its ivory stockpile on the basis of security concerns and, in violation of international regulations, has failed to submit an inventory of its ivory stocks to CITES. In July, the Centre for Environmental Rights submitted a request for the pertinent information from the Department of Environmental Affairs under the Promotion of Access to Information Act.
Together with Zimbabwe and Namibia, South Africa has submitted a proposal to CoP17 that would clear the way to re-opening the international trade in ivory and allow them to apply for permission to legally sell ivory from their stockpiles in 2017.
Last year, Namibia’s minister of Environment and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta, explained his government’s opposition to destroying its stockpile by stating that the legalised sale of ivory would mean that “we will get a lot of money, and the proceeds will go to state coffers to alleviate poverty”.
Botswana, while being opposed to the international trade in ivory, also refuses to destroy its stockpile. According to Tshekedi Khama, the country’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, “burning ivory would demonstrate to the communities that the animal has no value”.
In stark contrast, the African Elephant Coalition, a group of 29 Central, West and East African nations has submitted five proposals to CoP17, which, if accepted, would not only close all domestic ivory markets, prohibit the export of live elephants, list all African elephant populations in CITES’ Appendix I and end discussions on re-establishing a legal international trade in ivory, but would also endorse the destruction of existing stockpiles.
The economics of burning ivory
In a recent paper, two Mexican economists, Alejandro Nadal and Francisco Aguayo, present an assessment of the three most commonly cited policy options for stockpiled ivory.
Countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia, who favour selling ivory on the international market, believe that increasing supply will lower prices and reduce the incentives for poaching while raising income for conservation. As Nadal and Aguayo show, however, these expectations are based on overly simplistic economic models of poorly understood markets.
They warn that this option is likely to be counterproductive, noting that “the risk of enlarging demand and having a runaway process in which the ivory trade expands is only too real” and that “there is no theoretical support” for the notion that demand for ivory will drop if the supply is increased via stockpile sales.
Ross Harvey, a Senior Researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs draws similar conclusions and suggests that economic arguments for the sale of stockpiled ivory are “inadequate and entail implausible assumptions”.
There is real-world evidence to justify these assertions. In June, the National Bureau of Economic Research, an American non-profit organisation published a report which suggests that the CITES-sanctioned sale of over 100 tons of ivory from the stockpiles of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa to China and Japan in 2008 resulted in a 71% increase in illegal ivory smuggling from Africa. What’s more, there is considerable doubt whether the income South Africa raised from this sale actually went to its supposed purpose of financing elephant conservation.
According to Nadal and Aguayo, the second option, which involves maintaining ivory stockpiles to allow governments to threaten to destroy prices by flooding the market through sales if elephant population numbers fall below a critical threshold, is also premised on simplistic models and obsolete theoretical notions.
They believe that the destruction of stockpiles is the best policy. Their argument is supported by Harvey, who recommends that in combination with a ban on domestic trade, improved anti-poaching initiatives and effective demand reduction measures, elephant “range states should put their domestic stockpiles beyond commercial use immediately and simultaneously”.
The benefits of destroying stockpiles
According to Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu, burning ivory “is a highly visible political statement of intent. As such it can make an important contribution towards raising awareness of the issues, stigmatising the purchase of ivory and galvanising global support for a total trade ban”.
While keeping national ivory stockpiles intact encourages legal and illegal actors to remain in the business of poaching, trafficking and selling ivory, destroying these stockpiles eliminates the massive costs of managing and securing them. It also lowers the risk of corruption – state employees have been implicated in selling ivory stolen from stockpiles – along with the chances of illegal ivory being laundered into legal markets.
Ultimately, the spectacle of destroying ivory in public sends a clear message to would-be consumers that buying ivory is morally unacceptable and contributes directly to the slaughter of African elephants, over 100,000 of which were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012 alone.