By Christina Russo
Stirring renewed debate, a respected conservationist says that corruption makes a legal ivory trade unworkable.
It's one of the more incendiary questions discussed in wildlife conservation circles: Should there be a legal trade in elephant ivory?
This debate has been waxing and waning since at least 1989, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to "ban" the international trade in ivory after a ferocious wave of poaching in Africa that left hundreds of thousands of elephants butchered.
Some conservationists say that a limited legal ivory trade is needed to satiate demand, especially in China, in a controlled manner.
Many others argue that the 1989 ban must be kept in place to protect elephants, especially now that poaching has once again risen to catastrophic levels. One hundred thousand elephants were slaughtered from 2010 through 2012, according to a study published in the August 19 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A legal trade, they say, would only lead to even greater demand for ivory.
Elizabeth Bennett, a longtime conservationist and vice president for species conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), says it has become clear that it is impossible to have a controlled trade in elephant ivory.
That was her conclusion in a recent essay she wrote in the scientific journal Conservation Biology. In an interview, Bennett says she examined the prospect for a legal market in ivory and concluded that because corruption in some countries among certain government officials is so pervasive, "it can't be done."
The corruption, Bennett wrote, is specifically "among government officials charged with implementing wildlife-related legislation." These corrupt activities include "officials demanding bribes for compliance ... and accepting bribes to overlook illegal activities," or "to switch or alter CITES or other permits along the trade chain so that, through fraudulent paperwork, an illegal item seems legal."
In an interview, Bennett says she wrote the piece for two reasons: "We had a great increase in the poaching of elephants and data showing the effect of poaching. And then we also still had countries advocating for mechanisms to trade in ivory."
These countries, she says, include South Africa, which will host the next CITES conference in 2016, and China. Bennett's study notes that the global illegal trade in ivory has doubled since 2007.
Why is corruption rife? "There are two components to why the corruption happens: poorly paid officials and highly financed criminal networks," Bennett says. "That's a bad combination."
The overarching problem is that "once illegal ivory has entered the legal trade, it's difficult or impossible for enforcement officers to know what's legal and illegal."
Cleaning up corruption throughout an ivory trade network that permeates countries across the globe would take decades. At current poaching levels, the African elephant doesn't have that kind of time.
It is unclear how many elephants are left in Africa. A 2007 report gave a range of 472,000 to 690,000, but the actual number may well be as low as 250,000.
Not Quite a Global Trade Ban
Other flashpoints of discussion have been ignited by CITES-approved ivory auctions, called "one-off ivory sales." The sales, in which stockpiled ivory was auctioned to designated trading partners, took place in 1999 and 2008.
In the first sale, ivory from Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe was auctioned to Japan. The sale, according to CITES, represented 5,446 tusks and earned $5 million, which was used for "elephant conservation activities."
In the second sale, ivory from those countries and South Africa was sold to accredited
Chinese and Japanese traders. "Over 15 million USD for African elephant conservation and local communities have been raised through the sales of 102 tonnes of stockpiled ivory," according to a CITES press release.
To some conservationists, these sales were disastrous, spurring the current poaching frenzy by keeping the markets active, confusing consumers as to what was legal versus illegal ivory, and offering a loophole for laundering illegal ivory into markets. To others, the correlation is unproven.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), for example, supported the 2008 sale. Bennett says the WCS took no official stand. "We were more open-minded about a legal trade until the last three or four years," she says. "But the levels of corruption now prove we cannot control the trade."
Debate in the U.S.
Bennett's paper was released in the midst of a debate in the U.S. about its own domestic ivory trade. In February, the Obama administration announced its National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, which was created to address "the global wildlife trafficking crisis."
In addition, the White House announced a ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory—on "imports, exports and domestic sale of ivory, with a very limited number of exceptions." The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is working to implement the ban.
The ban has been unwelcome to some, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), the U.S.'s most powerful gun lobby. The NRA calls the ban on ivory an "overreach of authority" and problematic because "any firearm, firearm accessory, or knife that contains ivory, no matter how big or small, would not be able to be sold in the United States, unless it is more than 100 years old."
Trophy hunters are still allowed to hunt elephants in Africa for their parts, but the ban sets limits on the number of trophies that can be imported. The NRA also protests the ban because of those limits. (See: "Controversy Swirls Around the Recent U.S. Suspension of Sport-Hunted Elephant Trophies.")
In July, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee introduced a bill into the Senate called the Lawful Ivory Protection Act of 2014; Republican Representative Steve Daines of Montana introduced the same bill to the House of Representatives. These bills have the support of the NRA because they "protect firearms owners and sportsmen from a federal ban on the sale and trade of objects containing lawfully-imported elephant ivory." (Both bills have been forwarded to committees.)
Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey recently passed state bans on selling or importing ivory.
Colman O Criodain, the wildlife trade policy analyst at the WWF, says his organization mostly agrees with Bennett that any legal trade should be stopped. More....