…the ivory trade?

…the ivory trade?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Brendan O’Neill says the emotionally-driven ban on African states slaughtering elephants for their ivory is a severe denigration of African sovereignty.

The touchy subject of ivory-trading has taken centre stage at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in The Hague this week. In the name of protecting elephants from extinction, international trading in ivory was banned by CITES in 1989. The ban was partially lifted in the late Nineties in order to allow Namibia and Zimbabwe to ship nearly 34 tonnes of elephant ivory that they had lying around, or which they extracted from elephants that had died naturally, to Japan (ivory is big in Japan). Now some at CITES are calling for a 20-year moratorium on ivory-trading, which will mean reinforcing the 1989 ban and preventing African nations from carrying out the occasional closely-monitored sale of ivory from elephants that croaked it naturally to the Far East. It would be Elephants 1, Ivory Traders 0.

Should apparently loveable Dumbos be protected from apparently wicked poachers? Or should it be left to African nations to decide how to manage their elephant populations and what to sell on the international market? The recurring stink over ivory-trading shows how African states can be bossed around by Western governments and NGOs under the guise of environmental concerns and animal protection. In the cause of ‘saving the elephant’, an international body is effectively telling African governments what they can do on their own territory (no elephant-slaughter for ivory allowed!) and also what they can hawk on the international market (no ivory sales to Japan permitted!). The debate about the ivory trade reveals the jagged edge to the animal rights agenda, where the rights of humans are subordinated to the ‘interests’ of herds of elephants.

CITES is made up of 171 member states that meet every two to three years to review trade regulations on tens of thousands of plants and animals. At the current meeting, Germany is representing the European Union and is effectively playing a mediating role between clashing African states. Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe want more leeway to make occasional sales of ivory to the Far East; Kenya and Mali, however, support enforcing a 20-year moratorium. Various animal rights groups are agitating for the 20-year ban to be pushed through. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), in typically emotive and scaremongering lingo, says anything other than a complete ban will return us to the days when there was ‘unrelenting slaughter of elephants for their ivory’ (1).

It is true that there has been a decline in the number of elephants in Africa over the past 20 years, as a result of their being culled both for their ivory and in order to prevent them from impeding (and sometimes stampeding) on human habitats. In the late 1970s, there were around 1.3million elephants in Africa; today there are approximately 500,000 (2). This shows a decline, but it also suggests that elephants are far from being ‘close to extinction’: 500,000 is a healthy number and the southern African population of elephants has been growing in recent years. According to the World Conservation Union, the southern population has grown by four per cent annually; more than 50,000 animals have been added to herds in southern Africa over the past five years, where there are now 300,000 animals.

However, the ivory-trading ban actually prevents African states from effectively managing their elephant populations. The ban encourages illegal poaching, which means elephant numbers decline in some areas outside of the control of the authorities; thus the state cannot take concerted action to replenish the population and keep it healthy. Seizures of smuggled ivory have quadrupled over the past two years, and the price of good-quality ivory has risen from $200 per kilogram two years ago to $850 per kilogram today. One report says that ‘organised crime has taken over much of the business [of ivory-trading]’ (3). That isn’t surprising: bans don’t make things go away; they only push them underground. In other parts of Africa, the international frowning on elephant slaughter has led to an explosion in the elephant population, with sometimes dire consequences for human populations. At the CITES meeting, Botswana’s officials reported that their ‘herds are becoming unmanageable and animals are clashing more often with humans’ (4). The ban on trading, which is driven by a bizarre emotional attachment to elephants, ironically means that the elephant population is suffering in some parts of Africa (as illegal poaching rises) and running out of control in other parts of Africa.

A far more sensible approach to controlling the elephant population would be to allow African states openly and legally to cull elephants and sell whatever parts of them they choose. As Roger Bate of Africa Fighting Malaria has argued, ‘all the evidence suggests that regulated ivory trade is sustainable, provides much-needed revenue directly to local communities and is environmentally beneficial. Sound resource management necessitates elephant culling in order to conserve other species, whilst if local people are able to benefit from the revenue then they have stronger incentives to conserve stocks for the future’ (5). In short, an open ivory trade would allow Africans to benefit from their own resources (and elephants are a natural resource, every bit as much as a tree or mud or oil) and it would enable them to ensure, if they so wished, that the elephant population is regularly replenished so that the trade can continue.

The biggest problem with the restrictions on ivory-trading is that they deny Africans the right to run their own affairs. Sovereignty has traditionally meant a people, via their elected government, controlling not only their destiny but all of their land, seas, airspace and natural resources, too. If an external body has decreed that African states cannot cull their elephant populations for ivory, then it is undermining state sovereignty; it is interfering in a state’s control of its natural resources. Here, ‘international protection’ for elephants means a severe undermining of people’s national rights. IFAW openly says that an internationally enforced ban is the only solution because African countries are too immature, politically, to control the ivory trade: ‘Many African countries are ill-equipped….and anti-poaching rangers in many regions lack government support and funding for personnel and equipment. In addition, most African countries do not yet have the law enforcement or legal framework to effectively fight poaching and control the ivory trade.’ (6) In short, Africans cannot be trusted; instead we need international monitoring of their affairs. The call to protect elephants quickly translates into a demand to force Africans to toe the line.

The fact of the matter is, people are more important than elephants. And if people in Africa want to hunt elephants in order to make revenue or to protect human habitats or even just for sport, then that is their business. It would be better for every elephant in Africa to be made extinct than for elephant populations to be preserved at the expense of African people’s self-determination.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Read on: Who’s afraid of?

(1) Stopping the Ivory Trade, IFAW

(2) Endangered Species conference focuses on trading ivory and managing elephant herds, Associated Press, 11 June 2007

(3) Ibid

(4) Ibid

(5) Culling to be kind, Roger Bate, IEA, 1 January 2001

(6) Stopping the Ivory Trade, IFAW

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Topics Politics


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