By Brad Plumer
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared that it will destroy six tons of confiscated African elephant ivory next week — a stockpile amassed over 25 years. The aim is to deter ivory poachers, who have been killing record numbers of elephants in recent years.
"We want to send a clear message that the United States will not tolerate ivory trafficking and the toll it is taking on elephant populations, particularly in Africa," the agency said in a statement.
But does this unconventional tactic actually deter poaching? Countries have destroyed their confiscated ivory stockpiles before. Kenya did it twice in 1989 and 1991. Gabon burned tens of thousands of pounds of ivory, culled from 850 elephants, just last year. Yet some economists remain skeptical that this is the best way to stem the illegal ivory trade — part of a debate over the economics of poaching that has persisted for years.
Over at the Property and Environment Research Center, Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, a conservation economist based in South Africa, argues that the "ivory crush" could actually prove counterproductive. The move will reduce the global supply of ivory without affecting demand at all. That, in turn, could drive up the implicit "price" and perversely encourage further poaching:
"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. ..." [sic\ More....