A mixture of emotions rippled across the world following Kenya’s burn of 105 tonnes of ivory in Nairobi National Park last month.
For the past decade, the question of what we should do with the global stockpiles of confiscated ivory has divided conservationists and the public alike. There is no doubt that something needs to be done - holding large quantities of such a high-value product is both costly and dangerous requiring an around-the-clock presence of dedicated anti-poaching guards. However, many people feel that burning the ivory is not the only option.
African elephants have declined by almost 80% in the last 25 years, primarily due to the international trade in ivory, which has tripled since 1998. This is in spite of the 1989 CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species) ban, which condemned all commercial trade of ivory. With elephants at crisis point, many people feel that opening a legal sale of ivory supplied from these stockpiles could generate much needed funds for the conservation of the species, as well as helping to flood the ivory market to reduce demand.
In theory, this could work. A legal trade supplied from stockpiles or scientifically controlled culls could tackle many of the economic and environmental issues that surround elephants. The threat of poaching is driving elephants to take refuge in National Parks across Africa, often reaching densities far higher than the ecosystems can support. Add to this their size and we see large numbers of elephants causing habitat transformations that have cascading effects on other wildlife. Proponents of a legal ivory trade believe that culling elephants in these high density areas could kill two birds with one stone; both decreasing the problem of local elephant overpopulation and increasing the supply of tusks to sustain a legal market.
However, research suggests that a legal trade is not currently feasible. Firstly, two one-off sales in 1999 and 2008 did not decrease the demand for ivory. Instead, levels of poaching accelerated as demand was anticipated, and the carving industry in China, which had been waning since the CITES ban, was restored. Secondly, it is also feared that illegal ivory will leak into the legal trade, after which, differentiation between the two would be impossible. Unfortunately, the high value of ivory competes with low salaries among government and wildlife officials, leading to corruption along the whole commodity chain. Ivory is often transported out of countries with higher penalties and stored where penalties are lower and border officials can be bribed. The high court of Malawi fined two brothers just $5,000 for trafficking 2.6 tonnes of ivory from Tanzania. In contrast, traffickers in Kenya were fined nearly $1 million for just 18kg ivory. Unless a legal trade is supported by robust management systems that prevent illegal hunting and leakage (e.g. through scientific methods of identifying and marking legal ivory), major incentives to poach elephants will remain.
And so, the burning of stockpiles continues. Ivory burns attract worldwide media attention and increase the stigma attached to owning ivory, in the hope to reduce the demand in Asia. Incredibly, a study in 2012 found that most consumers in China were unaware that their ivory was obtained illegally; illustrating the need to target demand at the source. Burns are also supported and attended by celebrities and highly regarded conservationists; encouraging elephant range state leaders to adopt a no-tolerance attitude to wildlife crime and increase judiciary penalties for poaching.
Destroying ivory stockpiles is an undeniably devastating end to the lives of thousands of elephants, but may currently be the only option to save this species in a world that is willfully blind to the origin of its commodities.