By Michael 't Sas-Rolfes
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is about to destroy 6 tons of confiscated ivory being held in Denver — ostensibly to help the campaign against the illegal killing of elephants. By so doing, it is following the lead taken by Kenya in 1989 and more recently by several other African and Asian countries.
But does the destruction of stockpiles really help the cause? In 1989, Kenya's dramatic ivory burn seemed to have the desired effect. It raised global awareness, helped bring about an international ivory trade ban, and attracted substantial donations to Kenyan conservation efforts.
During the last decade, however, Asian demand for ivory has grown and continues to do so with rising affluence. Consumer surveys show that demand is currently widespread and not always concerned about ethical issues related to the source of supply.
The trade ban approach is also not supported by several southern African countries, which typically better manage their elephant populations and are eager to sell ivory stocks accumulated from natural morality to raise funds for elephant conservation.
To appease these countries, the world's governments agreed to relax the trade ban to allow two one-off state-to-state sales in 2000 and 2008. The impact of these sales is disputed: Some argue that the second sale re-established demand for ivory in China. Others counter that illegal markets for ivory were already growing at that time, that the legal sales are tightly controlled, and that the amounts concerned are a fraction of the illegal volumes.
Either way, the beneficiaries of the one-off sales appear to have been intermediary buying cartels, not elephants. A Chinese cartel was able to pay bottom dollar to elephant range states and subsequently mete out the acquired stocks onto the Chinese retail market at greatly marked up prices. This does not benefit conservation. Whereas African range states seek high selling prices to obtain sufficient funds to re-invest into much-needed field protection efforts, inflated end-user prices may stimulate competition from illegal suppliers. More....