By Joseph L. Moure
African elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory, which is a valuable and desirable commodity. It is estimated that the oldest piece of carved ivory may date back 40,000 years.
For most of history, a delicate balance existed. Elephant populations were great and the demand for ivory was not overwhelming, but the Industrial Revolution brought manufacturing technology that made ivory products such as billiard balls, piano keys and other consumer items readily available in volume. Thus began the worldwide slaughter of elephants. Nowadays, few consumer items are made from elephant ivory, but the workshops of China still produce vast amounts of product, accounting for 70 percent of the illegal trade, which costs the lives of an estimated 20,000 elephants a year.
In 1974, the United States signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species treaty, or CITES. Supposedly this was going to curtail the slaughter of elephants, but the criminal enterprise of ivory poaching has actually increased since the treaty has been in force.
CITES isn’t working for the elephants, so our misguided response has been to destroy caches of illegal ivory. The U.S. and China recently crushed 12 tons of ivory, which in the opinion of many knowledgeable experts, serves only to make freshly poached ivory more expensive.
Rather than exploring the spectrum of ideas to crack down on the criminal trade in ivory, a biased U.S. advisory group has recommended to the president that a complete ban on the sale of ivory be established in the U.S. (President Obama listened; he banned ivory sales with an executive order last month.)
Not all ivory is obtained from poaching. Some African countries cull elephant herds to control overpopulation and use the proceeds of their ivory sales to finance conservation efforts. Also, ivory can be harvested from animals that died from natural causes. In addition, a significant amount of ivory comes from the islands off Siberia where mammoth tusks remain plentiful and are perfectly legal to harvest and trade.
Chinese demand is at the epicenter of the illegal ivory trade, but the U.S. and the rest of the developed world does not have the will to confront our Chinese bankers. Americans may not be blameless, but the problem is a matter of Chinese demand.
Most ivory that exists in the United States is antique, and it isn’t locked away in museums. Ivory can be found in sculpture, jewelry, musical instruments, furniture, decorative objects, scrimshaw, cutlery, weaponry, medical instruments, pool cues, canes and much more. Banning the sale of antique ivory will do absolutely nothing to stop poaching, but it will create chaos in some segments of the economy and potentially make criminals of the average citizen.
Rosewood, ebony and other rare woods are also covered by the CITES treaty. Should we ban the sale of existing products made from those hardwoods, too?
This problem is far too important for the typical emotional response. People who are too lazy to familiarize themselves with this issue should step aside and allow for substantive analysis and debate. And by the way, maybe we should consider a ban on chocolate, since possibly 200,000 African children have been sold into slavery to work in the cocoa industry.
Regulation has resulted in the record slaughter of elephants and destroying illegal ivory has made the poaching trade more profitable. We should explore practical options and check our emotions at the door.
To quote that great philosopher Jimi Hendrix: “In order to change the world, you have to get your head together first.”
Joseph L. Moure is a retired investment executive in Santa Fe.