The ban on ivory sales has been an abject failure. A rethink is needed


Marshall Murphree, The Conversation Kirsten Conrad and Rowan Martin featured as co-authors on this article.

Date Published
The issue of trade in African elephant ivory will dominate the 2016 CITES Conference of the Parties meeting. Debate will revolve around maintaining or lifting the ban on trade, but with little chance of addressing the overarching human element. For example, what impact has the trade ban had on local communities? And what is the relationship between their livelihoods and elephant protection and poaching?

There has been vocal support for maintaining a ban on the trade in ivory. But the central arguments for a continuation of the ban fail to grasp the mismatch between a CITES trade ban and Africa’s de facto realities. Instead, overly simplistic views are aired that are blind to grass root complexities and nuances.

This narrow lens leads to the prescription of a “one size fits all” solution under which both communities, and elephants, ultimately suffer. Elephants are treated as a global commons. In fact their fate ultimately lies in the hands of humans which is why a continued ban, with increased enforcement accompanied by demand reduction, will not solve the poaching problem.

Indeed, regaining control of elephant ivory as a resource is the core problem around which the trade debate centres. It also concerns itself with allocation of power and control of resources among governments, communities and institutions.

Opponents of a legal trade in elephant ivory give the impression that there is a deep crisis: elephants are headed for extinction. Yet the status of elephants varies greatly across and within Africa. The greatest losses have occurred in central and west Africa, the continent’s two most politically unstable regions.

Contrast this with southern Africa, which has experienced a steady rise in elephant populations and is now home to two-thirds of Africa’s elephants. There is a problem, but it’s not continent-wide problem. The global population of the African elephant is not in immediate danger of extinction.

A legal ivory trade

A major flaw in the argument against those wanting to lift the ban is that legalising the sale of ivory may fail to reduce its price. But the pro-trade southern Africa countries are not seeking to drive prices downward. Why would they want to reduce the income from a product over which they have a competitive advantage?

Southern African countries’ aim is to realise the maximum income that the market will pay in a trading system based on regular sales. They want to gain control of the supply of ivory to a market that has been seized by illegal traders. Money from the legal sale of ivory would provide income to rural peoples who live with elephants – establishing the incentives for their conservation.

The ultimate goal of southern African countries is the transition from the present land-use system to a higher-valued one where rural people derive a better living from alternative options. This requires an enabling framework that does not include ivory trade bans or donor-dependent conservation. One example is Namibia’s Conservancy Programme, generally regarded as the most successful in southern Africa.

Southern Africa needs higher-valued land uses to survive an impending environmental crisis. The lives of millions of people are at risk through climate change. By demanding the inception of a legal ivory trade at CITES, southern African nations are seeking no more than that ivory sales assist in alleviating this crisis. Its sheer magnitude makes CITES’ preoccupation with listing species on Appendices irrelevant. It is a case of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Responsible global citizens should be doing everything in their power to facilitate a legal ivory trade that will mitigate human misery, realise the true potential of elephants and ultimately result in their long-term conservation. The likely annual proceeds from ivory for the anti-ban nations are of the order of US$1.5 billion.

This is calculated on the basis of around 300,000 elephants producing 500kg of ivory per 1,000 elephants at a value of US$10/kg. Existing rural community institutions are in place to ensure that funds are returned to local people.

Demand is in flux, prices sensitive

Another fallacious argument is that the market for ivory in Asia – particularly China – is insatiable due to growing affluence. This was purportedly ignited by a large “one-off” ivory sale conducted by CITES in 2008. This demand, the argument goes, has the potential to wipe out African elephant populations by 2020.

This is just drama. Demand is in flux and is sensitive to prices. And the role of affluence must be questioned since incomes in Asian consumer countries have been increasing since well before 2000. It’s not possible to reconcile the assertion that affluence is synonymous with insatiable demand.

For many, the spectre of laundering in sufficient quantity to pose a significant threat is reason enough not to pursue legal trade and, indeed, to shut down all trade – even in extinct, look-alike species. In excess of 2400 metric tons of raw ivory left Africa between 2002 – 2014 and, of this, China’s 5-6 tonnes/year is a minor amount. Illegal traders do not need a legal market to launder ivory: their established trade conduits continue to work, as always.

Abject failure

Everyone agrees that the illegal ivory trade continues despite the international trade ban. It has been an abject failure. CITES has had 27 years to evaluate the experiment and, far from being part of the solution to illegal elephant killing in Africa, the ban must be seen as part of the problem.

Some posit that a legal trade in ivory cannot work with the corruption in Africa. But they fail to consider that the ban has created fertile conditions for corruption. Indeed, officials and governments across the continent who declared the trade of ivory illegal have themselves been engaged in it. It made smuggling easy, according to popular writer V. S. Naipaul.

As he has done before, Naipaul touches a nerve. Africa today has no need for yet another spurious declaration. Rather, it needs support for the creation of a robust management and marketing system for one of its most valuable products.

Kirsten Conrad and Rowan Martin featured as co-authors on this article.