Wildlife & Biodiversity

Should ivory trade be legalised?

International ban on ivory trade has neither reduced elephant poaching nor the volume of the illegal trade. Is it time the trade is legalised? Rajeshwari Ganesan in India, Alok Gupta in Hong Kong, Sifelani Tsiko in Zimbabwe and Mandi Smallhorne in South Africa, analyse how such a decision will prevent elephant killings and financially empower communities in Africa

Zimbabwe has an ivory stockpile of more than 90 tonnes, worth US $13 million, which it wants to sell (Photo: Reuters)

Reportage | Legal market will curb poaching

All objects are made of one hundred per cent genuine ivory,” says the shopkeeper at Ming Hing Arts showroom in Hong Kong’s Kowloon locality. Hong Kong is the world’s largest market for ivory and the showroom is one of Hong Kong’s oldest shops selling ivory artefacts. The shop proudly displays a board that reads, “In business since 1952”, and has artefacts ranging from 10,000 Hong Kong dollars (HKD) to 1,000,000 HKD. We show him a picture of Ganesha and ask how much would it cost to get the image carved into a 15 x 10 cm ivory idol. “It will be 98,000 HKD. Delivery in a month,” he says, adding, “50,000 HKD for ivory and 48,000 HKD for carving.” When we ask him when and where the ivory was procured, he curtly asks us to leave.

The shop is symbolic of the global ivory trade, which is illegal, but continues to thrive in countries such as China. Unofficial estimates put the annual volume of illegal ivory trade at US $18 billion.

Ivory trade was banned in 1989 by the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between 181 governments to ensure that trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The countries voted to place African elephants on CITES' Appendix 1, which prohibits trade in ivory and other elephant parts.

However, the ban caused a vertical split in CITES, with one side demanding that the trade be declared legal and the other saying that legalising would be fatal for African elephants, which are the source of most of the illegally traded ivory in the world. The issue is likely to come to a head at the 17th Conference of Parties of CITES to be held at Johannesburg, South Africa, from September 24 to October 5. CITES is under pressure to devise innovative methods to allow ivory trade while ensuring elephant conservation.

Ivory trade has caused a rapid decline in elephant population in the continent (see ‘Ivory trail’). “The Hard Truth”, a report released by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2015, states that there were three million to five million African elephants at the beginning of the last century but the figure came down to 0.47 million in 2015.

The situation deteriorated particularly during 2000-2015, when the number of elephants in central Africa declined by 62 per cent.

“Though habitat loss and conflicts with humans contributed to this decline, poaching for ivory has been identified as the biggest threat to elephants. Illegal international ivory trade has actually tripled since 1998,” Gavin Edward, director of conservation at WWF, Hong Kong, told Down To Earth. Between 2010 and 2012, more than 100,000 elephants were poached in Africa, with forest elephants bearing the greatest impact, he said. A CITES meeting held in 2013 grouped China, Kenya, Malaysia, Thailand, Uganda, Tanzania, Vietnam and the Philippines as “parties of primary concern” where “poaching and/or illegal trade in ivory is at its peak”.

Penalised for saving elephants

While the CITES ban has failed to protect the elephant, it has led to a disquiet among African countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania and Swaziland. These countries have managed to protect the animal and its population has increased beyond the carrying capacity of the land. They say that ivory trade should not be banned because they need revenue from ivory sales to fund conservation efforts. Many of these countries have stockpiles of ivory and they want to earn from its sale. Zimbabwe, for example, has a stockpile of more than 90 tonnes, worth nearly US$13 million, obtained mostly from elephants that died a natural death. Rather than being able to earn from it, Zimbabwe spends almost the same amount ($13 million) every year on retrieving, preserving, transporting and storing ivory, say wildlife officials. With the country’s economy in a precarious situation, the government cannot afford such expenditure. Moreover, against a holding capacity (the maximum number of elephants that a country’s ecosystem can support in natural conditions without affecting its equilibrium) of 45,000, Zimbabwe has an elephant population of around 100,000. Till about a decade ago, legal trophy hunting could provide the communities that manage forests under Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE programme (see ‘The trophy would not hold’) enough money to survive in the harsh land where agriculture is not possible. But that is no longer the case (see ‘Hunter hunted’). The US has been campaigning against sport hunting and this has reduced our earnings which we could have used for conservation efforts, says Zimbabwe’s Environment, Water and Climate Minister, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri. Licensed hunters pay $120,000 for an elephant and $60,000 for a lion, while tourists pay $3 to view animals, she says.

The trophy would not hold
Zimbabwe's CAMPFIRE programme to manage wild areas was a success. But now things have changed for the worse

After INDEPENDENCE in 1980, the Zimbabwe government established the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE). The aim was twofold: to increase income opportunities in dry and arid areas close to animal sanctuaries and to maintain the ecological balance. Income was to be generated through various forms of natural resource exploitation—tourism and sale of wild animals or animal products. The land still belonged to the state, but benefit-sharing became more acceptable unlike in the colonial era.

Proceeds from the project were used for the benefit of communities. Under the programme, rural district councils were authorised to market wildlife resources in their districts to safari operators on behalf of communities. The operators would sell hunting safaris to mostly foreign sport hunters and eco-tourists, before paying the communities a dividend.

But over the years, due to a combination of factors, both internal and external, the CAMPFIRE programme weakened, and stopped remitting the 60 per cent it was supposed to give village wards. Donor support withdrawal (USAID was a major funder but withdrew in 1999), poor leadership, conflicts between local authorities and communities, political interference and poor funding contributed to the diminished role of CAMPFIRE.

At present, 58 out of 60 rural districts in the country are members of the programme, although just 16 of these are regarded as "major" CAMPFIRE areas in which income generation is primarily through big-game trophy hunting. CAMPFIRE director Charles Jonga says, "Currently, CAMPFIRE generates, on an average $2 million in net income every year, which is much lower than estimated potential earnings for the programme."

Prior to a ban on trophy hunting and carrying of ivory products on major US airlines, the elephant-hunting industry in southern African countries used to generate $14 million annually. Now, instead of earning, they spend huge amounts on protecting the ivory stockpile. And it is not that the elephants are now safe. They continue to be killed because domestic trade is still allowed in countries like Zimbabwe. In the absence of options, communities resort to poaching even though the local market lacks the financial clout to consume large amounts of ivory. Muchinguri–Kashiri says the ban has actually increased poaching across the country. In 2015 alone, 11 suspected poachers were shot dead, 2,139 incursions were detected, and 1,354 local poachers and 129 foreign poachers were arrested. The country also lost 35 elephants to poaching the same year. The government has roped in the army to improve security in protected areas. But with inadequate revenue to support these operations, poaching is likely to continue.

Muchinguri–Kashiri says she will present a report on poaching to the Cabinet soon. “We are holding more than 90 tonnes of ivory and we are losing some of the tusks,” she says. “Poaching will continue because there is a market out there. If we are permitted to do sport hunting and trade in a legal way, it will help us a lot.”

Overpopulation and poaching

South Africa faces the same dilemma. The country’s elephants have grown in numbers to a point of overpopulation. Poaching cases are also on the rise. “The Kruger National Park has had the highest poaching incidence within the last 15 years during just the past six months,” says Michelle Henley, co-founder, programme manager and principal researcher at Elephants Alive, a research organisation based in Hoedspruit, South Africa. Twenty-two elephants have been poached from the park since September last year. “Southern Africa—South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Mozambique, effectively—is the last stronghold of the African elephant,” says Henley. “Thirty years ago, this region had only 21 per cent of the elephants in Africa; today it has over 50 per cent. A wave of poaching has swept across Africa, starting in West Africa (which has less than two per cent of its elephants remaining) and taking 65 per cent of the elephants in Central Africa.”

About 0.8 million elephants have been killed in the last three decades, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, a New York-based non-profit. The non-profit launched a 96 Elephants Campaign in 2013, to highlight that 96 elephants were then being killed every day. The majority of these deaths were because of poaching. Trophy hunting contributes a very tiny percentage of elephant deaths, says Henley.

The rising elephant population is a problem because elephant herds can cause substantial losses if they enter farms. As far back as in 2008, the South African government had lifted the moratorium on the culling of elephants. At that time, the country’s environment minister, Martinus van Schalkwyk, said that culling would be considered only as a management option of last resort. But culling has not been practised for years, and experts at the Kruger park say they are using natural methods—such as closing boreholes and allowing more natural patterns of movement to prevail by opening up the borders with Mozambique, for example—to keep the numbers down. They reckon the numbers have risen, but not by as much as they could have without these methods.

Like Zimbabwe, South Africa is in the possession of a fairly significant stockpile of ivory confiscated from poachers or collected following natural deaths. Currently, the country’s stand on legal ivory trade is “officially undecided, with huge internal debate” in the Department of Environmental Affairs, says Ross Harvey, senior researcher at South African Institute of International Affairs, a Johannesburg-based non-governmental research institute.

There’s a strong chance that South Africa will come out in support of legalising trade in ivory, says Chris Galliers, a unit leader in biodiversity at the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, a Howick-based non-profit. There is “quite a prominent ideological stance that ‘this is our ivory and we should be able to capitalise on it’,” says Harvey. Moreover, in certain pockets, poaching is the only option available to communities to survive. Though poachers get only about a tenth of the price, it still is a huge amount. For instance, one tusk, weighing 35-40 kg, gets a poacher over $8,000 in Malawi, an east African country whose per capita income in 2015 was $275. So it came as no surprise when assistant director of National Parks and Wildlife of Malawi, William Mgoora, announced in September 2014 that the population of elephants in the country had fallen to less than 2,000 due to poaching and illegal wildlife trade. “Illegal wildlife trade has been escalating, with recent evidence [suggesting] that organised international crime syndicate are targeting and exploiting Malawi as a source and transit route for their illegal wildlife trade,” he had said. Low per capita income and rampant elephant poaching make Malawi an ideal country to source ivory.

To curb trade, many
countries destroy all
ivory confiscated from
poachers or obtained
from animals who have
died natural deaths (COURTESY: IFAW)

Legal market will curb poaching

If the trade is legalised, there would be regular markets for ivory and this would help curb poaching. “Regulated sale of ivory can benefit conservation, as claimed by the countries with regulated markets [for instance, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia]; perhaps more important, the results [of the study] also suggest that action to close unregulated ivory markets in Africa is needed to protect the elephant,” Ronald Clarke, author of “The International Ban on Ivory Sales and its Effects on Elephant Poaching in Africa”, a paper published in The British Journal of Criminology in 2009, told Down To Earth.

In an article published in Conservation Biology in 2014, Elizabeth L Bennett, vice-president, Species Conservation, Wildlife Conservation Society, says, “The legal market would be supplied from animals in the wild now or recent past (e.g., sales from stockpiles of ivory and saiga horn), from captive or semi-captive animals (e.g., rhinoceros horn removed from live animals), or from farmed animals (e.g., bear bile, tiger bones). Numerous plant and animal species are already subject to a managed trade which, in many cases, is sustainable; legal trade dominates the market and illegal trade is minimal (e.g., ornamental plants, crocodilian skins).”

“In Africa, budgets are tight, and governments have bigger priorities such as funding health and education. At an international level, public sympathy for elephants rarely translates into cash, so donor funding is normally short-term and unpredictable,” says Bob Smith, senior research fellow in conservation science, University of Kent, the UK. “This is why many African governments stockpiled ivory that was confiscated from poachers or came from elephants that died of natural causes before selling their ivory legally and using the money to fund conservation work,” he explains.

“The passionate opposition to the trade partly comes from lack of awareness—many people think all ivory comes from poaching, whereas some comes from elephant deaths and herd conservation and management. Many people are also uneasy about the idea of making money from wildlife and are particularly uncomfortable when it involves animals as majestic as elephants,” explains Smith.

In “An Analysis of Ivory Demand Drivers”, a 2015 study sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society, author Daniel Stiles of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, argues that “Closing the legal market will not make the black market disappear; if anything, it will grow larger… There are more than enough elephants to supply a legal market from natural mortality without illegally killing a single elephant—if the ivory items are kept expensive,” which, he says, can only be assured if there’s a legal market.

How to legalise?

The task is to chalk out the road map to legalise the trade. There are a few examples to learn from. Take, for instance, crocodile farming. With declining wild populations in the 1960s and 1970s, crocodile farming began to gather momentum in as many as six countries—Zimbabwe, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Venezuela and the US. During this time many countries enacted legislations to protect crocodilian population, and CITES was enacted in 1975 to regulate trade in wild species. Crocodile farming was seen not only as a way to reduce the pressure on the wild populations, but also as a means through which commercial incentives for the conservation of crocodilians could be generated.

By late 1970s and 1980s many programmes were being developed, based on the sustainable use of crocodilians to generate conservation benefits for several subspecies, including the Nile crocodile, Saltwater crocodile, American alligator, Spectacled Caiman and New Guinea crocodile. As all species of crocodilian are listed on the CITES Appendices, international trade is regulated. Countries that are signatories to CITES, and which utilise wild crocodilian resources, must demonstrate that the use does not threaten the survival of the species. This typically involves some sort of monitoring of the wild population to assess the impacts of use, and regulation of products in trade. For example, all crocodilian skins in international trade must have a uniquely numbered, non-reusable tag attached to them—this allows “legal” skins to be easily identified. With only farmed crocodiles being used to meet the demand for meat and leather, the population in wild has increased considerably. According to a 2015 report by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the population of crocodiles in the world has increased from 0.3 million in the 1960s to 2.5 million in 2013.

China’s successful breeding of tigers in captivity is another example that can be followed. Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC), the wildlife trade monitoring network, indicates that between 2000 and April 2014, at least 1,590 tigers were poached around the world. In the same period, the number of captive tigers in about 200 farms in China soared from less than 1,000 to 6,000.

In Hong Kong, nearly
242 tonnes of ivory
was sold between
1990 and 2008,
an average of over
13 tonnes per year (Photo: Reuters)

Though there are claims that the animal is ill-treated in captivity, China’s tiger farm industry vouches that the trade in captive animals helps to relieve the pressure on wild felines. Terry Anderson, executive director of Property and Environment Research Center, a US-based non-governmental organisation that looks at market-based approaches to conservation, feels that “Regulated tiger farms could provide enough tiger products to reduce the pressure on wild tigers from poaching. It would be wrong to say that by eliminating the market we eliminate the demand for tigers.” Anderson adds that the focus on the issue of killing the animals means many animal rights activists may lose sight of the potential of what he calls a “conservation-commodity solution”.

These examples show that the demand for ivory too could be met by farming. It is also said that the tusks of captive elephants are more in demand because of their off-white buttery colour. The tusks of wild elephants have black striations and the artefacts made of wild tusks are considered inferior. Countries with sizeable elephant populations can consider the option. In Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Botswana, for example, people already farm elephants on ranches for trophy hunters.

The naysayers

Though there have been a lot of arguments in favour of legalising ivory trade, not everyone is convinced that it would help matters. The proponents of legal ivory trade say that allowing sales of stockpiles would flood the market with ivory and bring the price down. But this did not happen in 2008 when CITES allowed African countries to auction their stockpiles and China and Japan bought it in significant amounts. Even pre-1990 ivory was allowed to be sold in this one-time sale. In fact, this sale of ivory is said to be the reason for the continued decline in elephant numbers. George Wittemyer and five other researchers in their study “Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants” highlight that illegal killing of elephants in Africa increased significantly after 2008 and correlated strongly with the local black market ivory price and increased seizures of ivory destined for China.

The study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, says that in Africa 29,124 tuskers were killed in 2010 and the figure increased to 41,044 in 2011. Li Zhang, professor of ecology at Beijing Normal University, China, says that CITES’ move to auction ivory stockpile proved fatal for African elephants. “The auction opened up the diminishing ivory market and its effect is still continuing with rampant poaching of elephants,” Li says. Even the decision to ban only the post-1990 ivory is now considered short-sighted. “It’s extremely difficult to differentiate between post- and pre-1990 ivory,” says Gavin Edward. He says that CITES may not have thought of this problem while imposing the ban.

“Legalising ivory trade will not end the problem,” says Henley. “As long as there is ivory available, the killing will continue.” Most of the illegal trade is, in fact, apparently happening at the less expensive end of the market, with seizure data showing enormous amounts entering China, explains Harvey. Henley says, “If you open up the market, you risk unintended consequences which could be disastrous for the elephant.” She adds, “It is poverty and unemployment that make poaching so uncontrollable. With the best of intentions, people around the world pour money into increasing the guns and protection in vulnerable areas—but to me, that’s addressing a symptom and not the cause. More money should be going into community development and education, raising awareness of the value of this wildlife to the community.”

There is also a need to bring the demand of ivory down. “Ivory is a status product—it has no medicinal use,” says Henley. “When you know it is a social status artefact, what you need to do is shame it.”

Ivory trade is unlike any other industry, says Harvey. There isn’t enough data to understand the possible consequences of a legal trade. “We have to ban the stuff, we have to enact strong international law and enforcement efforts.”

Globally, a lot of effort is being made towards continuing the ban on the trade. Even Hong Kong has succumbed to the pressure. This January, Leung Chun-ying, head of Hong Kong’s administration, announced plans to ban ivory trade. At a press briefing held after the announcement, Leung said, “We will take steps to totally ban the sale of ivory in Hong Kong... As to the matter of timing, we will do it expeditiously, as quickly as we can, but this will require legislative amendments and that will be a matter for the Legislative Council.”

The prices of ivory are already going down. In December 2015, a new research to be published by Save the Elephants, a UK-registered non-profit based in Kenya, indicated that the price of illegal raw ivory in China has almost halved over the past 18 months. The value of raw ivory in Beijing had tripled in the four years up to 2014, reaching an average wholesale price of $2,100/kg, but by November 2015 this had dropped to $1,100, as revealed in the new study by experts on ivory markets, say Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin, authors of the study. This is because of the growing awareness in China about the impacts of buying ivory and the slowdown of the Chinese economy, say the researchers in the study.

There is huge pressure on China too to ban ivory trade and President Xi Jinping has already constituted a working group to prepare an effective ivory ban policy. “The government has apprised ivory carvers and traders to exhaust their stock within 12 months. After that ivory permits won’t be renewed,” Li said. It means that the domestic market of ivory in China will be abolished by the end of next year. Li, however, says that such country-wise ban will have a very limited or no impact on elephant poaching. He points out that China and Hong Kong might have huge stockpiles of ivory, but the US and many European countries also have hundreds of tonnes of ivory brought through trophy hunting. Though US President Barrack Obama has taken a tough stand on the trade of endangered species, only three of the 50 states in the US—New York, New Jersey and California—have banned it, Li adds. This despite a recent US-China agreement which, according to a White House press release issued during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit in September 2015, says, “The United States and China commit to enact nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”

Li advocates for a complete global ban with governments buying the entire stock of ivory to put an end to elephant poaching. “If China is serious about the ban, it would buy the entire stock of ivory from the market and donate it to museums. No ivory in the market will end ivory trade,” he says. He calculates that going by the current price of ivory at $1,350 per kg, and adding inventory and storage expenses, China will have to invest $84 million to buy raw ivory and another $500 million to purchase carved ivory. “These pieces can be conserved in a museum as an educational initiative to teach children about wildlife crime and how China ended it,” Li adds. He advocates similar initiatives by all the countries.

“Ivory is not used to make any life-saving drugs. The only purpose is to carve statues and make seals. There are already suitable alternatives to ivory and I think totally banning ivory trade should be the answer,” says Jose Louies, Head, Enforcement & Law Division, Wildlife Trust of India. “Ivory is not something without which we cannot live and farmed ivory will only increase the poaching,” Edwards says.

This does leave the question of what is to be done with the increasing elephant population in the African countries that have successfully protected elephants.

India and ivory trade
As per the last countrywide elephant census held in 2007-08, India has over 27,000 elephants and the country is one of the main ivory carving centres of the world. India has also had its share of poaching cases. According to Wildlife Crime Control Bureau of India, about 30 elephants were poached in August 2015 from Kerala and Tamil Nadu alone. According to Raman Sukumar, senior elephant biologist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, around 1,000 elephants were poached from the country during 1990-2015. India is a part of CITES and is against removing the ban on international ivory trade despite having an ivory stockpile of around 25,000 kg, worth over $275 million, stored with the forest departments of various states.



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