By Mary Rice
Proponents of easing the global ban on ivory are ignoring the fact that it was a legal market for ivory that pushed elephants toward extinction only a few decades ago. What’s needed now is not a legal ivory market, but better regulation and enforcement of the existing ban.
There are certain universal truths about any trade. A legal trade in any commodity provides a laundering mechanism for illegal goods. For example, there is a massive trade in black-market tobacco and alcohol, generating millions of dollars for criminals. And with any trade comes the desire to maximize profit and increase demand, which inevitably leads to marketing aimed at stimulating demand and increasing sales.
But ivory cannot be grown in plantations or matured in distilleries, when market
forces result in increased demand. It can only come from dead elephants.
Advocating a legal trade in ivory as a way to protect elephants in the wild is based on assumptions of political will, best practices, and strict enforcement in a world devoid of corruption and greed. The reality, of course, is far from this vision.
Regardless of whether you favor a trade in ivory or not, it is worth remembering that only four decades ago there was a thriving legal trade in ivory, which was so out of control that African elephants faced extinction.
Efforts at regulating that trade had failed. And because they had failed, in 1989 the international ban on ivory trading was adopted under the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), providing a respite for many elephant populations and allowing them to recover. The bottom fell out of the ivory market, trade slumped, and — for just under a decade — the ban was upheld in full.
But in 1999, CITES agreed to allow an “experimental’ sale of stockpiled ivory to Japan. That decision resulted in a general sense that the ban was no longer effectively in place. At a 2002 CITES meeting, China blamed the 1999 decision for confusing people and cited the “experimental” sale as the principal cause of the increasing amount of illegal ivory entering its shores.
By 2005, China had decided that it too wanted a piece of the pie and started campaigning for another stockpiled ivory sale in which it would be a recipient. Poaching had begun to increase, along with the number of large-scale seizures of illegal ivory, many of which were destined for China. Against the backdrop of this escalating poaching crisis, CITES agreed another sale in 2008, this time to both China and Japan.
One of the arguments in favor of trade has been that having a regular supply of ivory provides security to the traders, removing the incentive to seek illegal stock. To all intents and purposes, that is what the 2008 sale provided. In fact, the Chinese Government decided to limit the release of its 60-plus tons of ivory to five tons a year until 2016-17. But in March 2013 Chinese delegates to CITES stated that they required 200 tons of ivory a year in order to satisfy the intense demand for ivory products in China.
What is enough? Traders themselves agree that no amount of legal trade can satisfy the current demand for ivory worldwide. And this demand continues to grow. More....