Just over a quarter of a century ago, in 1989, an international ban on
ivory was imposed. It initially had great success, certainly in making
the owning of ivory taboo in much of the world. Many owners of ivory
duly packed their tusks, figurines and jewelry away out of sight.
with demand for ivory still there, the ban is not working. Neither has
the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, inked by 46 countries
in February 2014 to control the illegal ivory trade, resulted in a drop
in poaching. In fact, the illegal trade has doubled since 2007.
to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species,
elephant poaching levels in Africa have steadily risen between 2002 and
2014, with over 20,000 African elephants killed for their ivory tusks in
With poaching once again at catastrophic levels, debate has reignited as to whether a legal ivory trade should be allowed.
are two camps in this conservationist tussle. One advocates keeping the
1989 ban in force no matter what to protect elephants. The other camp
advocates allowing a more controlled, legal trade to curb poaching.
issue with the ban is that there is clearly demand. As with so many
banned items, if there is demand, people will resort to extraordinary
measures to get it, especially if there is a good profit to be made.
Part of the ban's problem is that the ivory is sourced from countries
with low incomes, making poaching economically attractive. As an Ugandan
wildlife guide told me, "There is a spike in poaching in the lead up to
holidays and when school fees are due, as people's expenses increase."
factor undermining the ban is enforcement. Many African countries have
increased the number of rangers to protect animals and ward off
poachers, but national parks are huge spaces, hard to secure. The army
could, for instance, be assigned to such a role, to protect a national
resource that brings in tourism dollars via wildlife safaris, but when
asked about this option, the reply was that is not the army's role, but
instead that of the invariably underfunded environment ministry.
comes to, well, the elephant in the room regarding the ban: corruption.
Many of the African countries where elephants and rhinos abound are
highly corrupt, meaning the ban is circumvented through the greasing of
So what should be done to preserve these wonderful,
endangered creatures? Quelling demand is one way, which is slated to
decline as attitudes change toward ivory, as touted by film star and
conservationist Jackie Chan. Dying tusks and rhino horns so they have no
commercial value is another option. Using synthetic celluloid ivory,
known as "French Ivory," is another solution. Such approaches should be
But in our financial system, money is king, and the
ivory trade is worth an estimated $18.5 billion a year. A controversial
solution is to allow the legal trade of ivory. In the past, one-off
sales were made, lastly in 2008. It is since then that illegal ivory
sales have spiked, driven in part by speculators stockpiling tusks for
greater profit down the line. This has also pushed a lucrative black
If legal sales of raw ivory were allowed, through regular
auctions, this could circumvent the illegal trade by providing enough
ivory to meet demand. The ivory would be sourced from elephants that
died of natural causes or that had to be put down.
As a result,
speculation and poaching would drop through demand being met, of say 50
tons a year. The proceeds of sales could then be passed on for
conservation efforts and help bolster African economies as well as
Ultimately, nobody actually needs ivory,
or rhino horns for supposed medical uses; there is no actual benefit.
But as the demand is there, a realistic debate needs to occur around how
best to deal with the trade as well as to preserve Africa's large
mammals at the same time.