Cape Town (South Africa) - After nearly 20 years, ivory trade is legal again.
This is good news for callous lovers of exotic trinkets or traditionalists among
pianists, but hardly a reason for elephants to celebrate, you might think.
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
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
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.
Laurson is editor-in-chief of the International Affairs Forum. Pieler is a
senior fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation. Business
Day, South African daily newspaper covering economics, commerce and industry.