By Paula Kahumbu
Big animals like elephants and rhinos are prone to over-exploitation since they mature and reproduce slowly.
There are many suggestions on how to eliminate poaching of our natural resources. One of these is the proposal to apply the model of supply and demand, as suggested by columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo in an article last March 4.
He suggested that stockpiles of confiscated ivory that are currently burnt by governments should instead be dumped on the market to help push the prices down.
The fact of the matter is that most traditional economic models do not work for natural resources such as wild animals and plants. This is because they do not respond to market demands the way manufactured goods or farm produce do. “Harvesting” rates of wild species cannot be boosted the way crops and livestock can, through artificial feeding and selective breeding; their productivity is dictated by the laws of population ecology.
Big animals like elephants and rhinos are prone to over-exploitation since they mature and reproduce slowly. They do not have much surplus and are always poised on the edge.
Ivory stockpiles accumulate slowly over decades. Selling them off all at once may send a pulse of cheap ivory to the consumers, but the idea that it would flood the “market” and satisfy all demand is an illusion. There are many rich people in China now and it would take a huge amount of ivory to meet that demand and cause prices to drop.
It is said that 200 million Chinese people enter the middle-income bracket every year. If only 10 per cent of them get a small amount, say half-a-kilogramme each, that would amount to a whopping 10 million kilogrammes of ivory. That means one million elephants would have to die to supply just 10 per cent of the additional annual demand for ivory in China. That is more than double the number of elephants left in Africa.
The argument of flooding the market with ivory to make demand drop is quite illogical. If ivory suddenly became affordable to low earners and the rich turned their noses up at it, there would still be a surge in consumption.
And then the windfall would be gone, and the accelerated demand would still be there, except now even “average” people would have a taste for it. If there is any relief to be gained from a massive sale of ivory stockpiles, it would be temporary, the calm before an even more serious storm.
There is one major inaccuracy of this argument. Ivory is currently not for sale. The ivory in stockpiles is not part of current supply, and only part of it could ever be sold because the regulations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) prohibit the sale of confiscated tusks.
Storing ivory only incurs costs: it is expensive to keep in secure storage year after year and to deploy protective forces. Lives are also lost as Kenya Wildlife Service rangers and rural residents die when desperadoes come in with weapons to steal the ivory at source.
The experiment of regulated ivory markets has been tried several times in the past and always failed for the reasons explained above. The only way to save elephants is to push the value of ivory to nil through attaching a social stigma to it.
This is how the fur trade was crushed in the 1960s and the shark fin trade more recently in China. There are also cultural concerns. To most Africans, ivory means only death — the only way a person can get hold of it is through violence, when an elephant dies.
Ivory only has meaning for us when it is attached to a living, breathing, functioning elephant.
What would the Chinese government do if Kenyan traditional dancers suddenly started appearing in Panda bear furs? There would likely be an international protest against Kenya and China would probably view the spectacle as a call to war. The plunder of elephants to supply Chinese ivory markets is an act of war against Africans.
Just as the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom and the Panda is a powerful totem of peace, friendship, and gentleness of China, the elephant represents Africa’s identity as a great, intelligent, powerful, and unified community. Our message to anyone interested in ivory is — get your hands off our elephants.