Expert Commentary

Elephants, ivory and trade

2010 policy paper in Science exploring the consequences of policies relating to the export of ivory from African countries.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) implemented a ban on ivory exports in 1989, but global efforts to combat the slaughter of elephant species have been met with mixed success. As a 2012 New York Times investigation revealed, the ivory trade continues in an “epic frenzy,” and the profits fuel conflicts, much as “blood diamonds” and the plunder of other rare minerals do in Africa. For several years now, the ivory trade has resumed at levels beyond those of the 1980s — before the global ban — pitting powerful ivory “cartels” against international forensics investigators, as Scientific American notes.

According to a 2012 CITES report (PDF), between 1989 and 2004 “many elephant populations began to recover,” but in 2005 the illegal trade restarted again in full force. (It is worth noting that the domestic ivory-carving business has continued in some African countries; and two legal sales of stockpiled ivory, overseen by CITES, have taken place in recent years, one to Japan and another to China and Japan.) The report states that the “failure of CITES regulations to control the illegal trade in ivory is largely because many range states have not implemented strong domestic legislation and law enforcement to control illegal hunting and their unregulated domestic ivory markets. Most countries in Africa appear to be unable (or unwilling) to meet the high costs required to fully protect their elephants.”

A 2010 policy paper from an international team of researchers published in Science, “Elephants, Ivory and Trade,” reviews relevant studies and data in order to assess current and future policy. The chief question that they address is whether some countries should be allowed to “downlist” the status of some endangered elephants in order to allow for the further sale of ivory stockpiles.

Key points in the paper include:

  • “Zambia and Tanzania are among the largest sources of, and transit countries for, Africa’s illegal ivory…. China and Japan, the only two approved importing countries, are also among the three largest consumers of illegal ivory…. They too are failing to control illegal trade, risking legal sales becoming cover for black-market ivory.”
  • “The largest single ivory seizure since the ivory trade ban (6.5 tons in Singapore) in 2002 was shown by DNA analyses to have originated almost entirely from Zambia…. Zambia unsuccessfully petitioned CITES to downlist their elephants that year, and other similarly sized seizures followed.”
  • Though there is insufficient data relating to elephant populations in many regions, the “proportion of elephant mortality attributed to illegal killing (PIKE) — an index of poaching threat — in Tanzania’s SGR rose from 22% in 2003 to 63% in 2009.”

The researchers recommend that no further sales of ivory stockpiles take place, as even such regulated, lawful sales ultimately work to encourage poaching and undermine the international export ban.

Tags: Asia