The elephant in the room: All talk and too little action


The Times Editorial 

Date Published


The great ivory trade argument gets a loud trumpet of irony this week. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is holding a gathering in Johannesburg – with the host nation among a small group of countries wanting major changes to the ivory trade ban that most of the rest of the world backs wholeheartedly and vehemently.

Four Southern African countries have lashed out at what they call elitist do-gooders for “dictating” how they should protect their elephants. After all, Southern Africa has been a lot more successful at conserving wildlife than other regions globally. But – and it’s a big but – even this part of the world is starting to lose the battle against poaching.

Here’s the conundrum: the ban on the ivory trade has been in place for 40 years but no one can say that it’s been a roaring success. Illegal trade has flourished and grown as the developing world – notably in the East – has grown richer.

More than 111,000 African elephants were slaughtered by poachers in the past decade, bringing the continent’s surviving total to only 450,000.

So why continue with a ban that doesn’t really work? Why not build a legal market in ivory, ploughing the proceeds into a new pachyderm value chain, breeding management and conservation. Thus goes one argument.

The reality is that most people are viscerally disinclined to change course now, so South Africa and its neighbours won’t be winning the vote at the end of the Cites talk-shop.

However, the shocking poaching and trafficking stats coming out of this week’s conference will, we hope, galvanise the pro-ban brigade into moving beyond high-sounding words on pieces of paper.

If poaching is happening on “an industrial scale, driven by transnational organised criminal groups”, as one caring person put it yesterday, surely the response from the do-gooders needs to be a lot more high-calibre, and better-leveraged financially, than has been the case thus far.