Somehow it’s not more comforting to know that China, quickly becoming
the premier neocolonial force in Africa, is a key reason why the Convention
on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites)
has allowed the export of 110 tons of ivory. The other reason is Japan, which
was cleared for limited purchases of ivory in 1997.
But there is a reason for Cites to relax the trade embargo on ivory for the first time since its enactment in 1989: ivory trade is good for elephants. It’s counterintuitive, of course, but an elephant well shot is a species well protected. Simply enough, when there is a market value in products derived from any species, people have a strong incentive to preserve and protect that species for its economic worth. Failing to grasp this is one reason why wilderness protection policies have failed so often and so miserably . Michael Norton-Griffith, the Kenyan economist and ecologist, makes the point that land put into economic production has a natural advantage over unexploited wilderness. If legal trade in products from protected areas or of protected species was liberalised, the natural habitats for leopard fur, big game trophies, crocodile leather, tropical woods, vicun a wool, rare fish and so forth could compete very nicely.
The key to this is property rights. Without attaching property rights to wild animals, for example, poaching and ruthless exploitation will be the lamentable, inevitable consequence, especially in poor societies. This is not a cynical prediction, it’s simply reality. Conservation programmes can limit such detrimental and off-the-books exploitation, but not very effectively. And conservation has to be paid for — often from donors. This makes conservation efforts spotty at best.
Now the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (Traffic), co-founded by the World Wildlife Fund and Cites in the 1970s, has pointed to several examples that show that species protection based on legal trade — which includes tourism and big-game hunting — works. In Namibia and Tanzania, the locals who are allowed to profit from the wild animals on their land, or who have a licence to hunt in national parks, see to it that poachers don’t steal from them. Not coincidentally, the elephant population in Tanzania is thriving. It turns out that the self-interest of locals is a better motivation to protect elephants than the idealism of far away foreigners.
Better still, the population in the poor countries that are the most vulnerable to illegal, rather than sustainable, exploitation gain a way out of poverty. After all, poverty is, contrary to the romantic notions of many a western tree-hugger, the greatest threat to the environment.
And what about those elephants that will now fall at the hands of eager Chinese and Japanese hunters? No elephants will be harmed in this instance: the 110 tons will come from existing stocks of ivory. After this one-off sale there will be a nine-year moratorium on further such sales. Further, proceeds from this sale will be earmarked for wildlife conservation and economic development in those African nations that have been cleared to sell their stockpiles. Somewhat undermining part of the sale’s purpose, this is presumably the necessary nod to those ecologists who still resist the idea of protection through exploitation.
Western conservationists claim even small, one-off sales encourage poaching. This is unlikely (sales might rather dampen prices by increasing supply, taking the punch out of poaching), but is something Traffic wants to find out in those nine years.
This makes the ivory deal a compromise that helps a few stockpiling countries, but only hints at the market potential for safeguarding the elephant as a species.
Not for the first time, it is the developed nations objecting to legalising ivory trade, and the elephant-habitat nations that seek more leeway in marketing ivory.
No one is seeking an unregulated ivory trade, nor disputes the value of maintaining wildlife preserves, a big tourist attraction and an important part of the economic equation for preserving wildlife. The illegal market thrives when there’s no viable, legal, publicly accountable alternative. Markets and ecological concerns will work nicely in tandem here, if we let them. Pachyderms for profit, and pleasure too. As they say: if we outlaw ivory, only outlaws will have ivory.