Culling to be kind
The ivory trade is good for Africans and their elephants, argues Roger Bate
In mid-April nearly 34 tons of elephant ivory from Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe were due to be shipped to Japan. The sale, agreed in principle nearly two years ago and worth $5 million, is the result of the tortuous process to overturn the 1989 ban on international ivory trade. But in February it was revealed that a US animal rights group planned to discredit the trade in order to halt future sales, using evidence gathered secretly by South African anti-poaching police.
Southern African countries have made a meticulous case for resuming restricted ivory trade, against opposition from international interest groups concerned that it would encourage uncontrolled elephant slaughter. George Hughes, head of the Natal Parks Board in South Africa, and many like him have convinced most trade sceptics that the ban, agreed under the auspices of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), should be lifted. At the CITES meeting in Harare in Zimbabwe in July 1997 a majority of member states voted in favour of a limited resumption in ivory trading. The two-thirds majority required for lifting the ban was only just reached and since the USA, Britain and many influential Northern countries either abstained or voted against, the pro-trade position is still precarious.
Militant animal rights groups are attempting to sabotage pro-trade efforts. The US-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is even subverting the role of government departments. Prior to April's ivory sale, IFAW planned a media hit purporting to show, in almost pornographic detail, fresh evidence of poaching apparently obtained from reputable government sources. In so doing it aimed to make the trade to Japan a one-off, an aberration in an otherwise decade-long ban.
In February Peter Mokaba, South African deputy environment minister, called for an investigation into the actions of the South African Endangered Species Protection Unit (ESPU) - a police unit specially designed to fight poaching. Last year the cash-strapped ESPU secretly accepted $460 000 from IFAW. According to Mokaba the money was for staff training, but it was actually spent on gathering the data on ivory poaching across Africa on which IFAW was to base its proposed smear campaign. Nobody, Mokaba included, is opposed to gathering data on poaching incidents, but as Mokaba said, 'the ESPU did not disclose their whole intention to South Africa or other African countries'. Ministers were unaware of the donation, and it has become an embarrassment to them.
Chris Styles, deputy director of the South African Rhino and Elephant Foundation, resigned as adviser to IFAW, protesting about 'the political ramifications' of IFAW's funding tactics. He was particularly concerned that ESPU could be 'contracted' to do an investigation for the foreign pressure group.
ESPU's Project Jumbo gathered data on poaching incidents across Africa, and involved 242 days of field research. The draft report, not publicly released, has strong animal rights overtones, claiming poaching to be 'deviant behaviour' and even equating it to rape. Such rhetoric is unusual for a police unit, and, what is more, given the time spent gathering evidence, the report is thin on detail. While the most obvious conclusion of this report is that poaching is reasonably well under control, IFAW's tactics tend to flag up the most lurid poaching incidents and blow them out of proportion, to support claims that reopening trade encourages poaching.
IFAW's thesis is that any legal trade will be used to provide cover for massive illegal trade because ivory in transit will not automatically be seen as illegally shipped, and hence will not be confiscated. And reopening trade does make monitoring of illegal trades slightly harder. However, security measures demanded by CITES and implemented by Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia and Japan, have been well designed, and, crucially for the former two countries, can be well executed with funds released from trade.
International trade issues attract media coverage and appeal to fundraisers in animal rights organisations, but trade and poaching are not the elephant's main problem. Strain on elephant habitat through growing human populations causes competition with Africa's smallholder farmers. In these circumstances, farmers understandably kill elephants whenever possible since they trample their crops and destroy villages, and this is the key reason why elephant numbers have declined in areas such as Kenya and Tanzania. Nevertheless, the elephant is far from endangered with well over 500 000 animals across Africa.
Perversely, the 1989 trade ban allowed poaching to increase in some southern African countries because funds previously received from ivory sales were no longer available to pay for anti-poaching units. Making elephants valuable to Africans by allowing them to own the animals and trade in their products is the best way to ensure the species' sustainable existence. Zimbabwe has done this most effectively, and now villagers love their elephants, as looking after them brings good returns alongside farming and other rural employment possibilities. Zimbabwean farmers, unlike their northern counterparts, do not turn a blind eye to poaching. It was precisely because of these arguments that trade is resuming. Poaching will continue across Africa, as poor Africans look for ways to make ends meet. But this poaching will not predominate in southern African countries, because hunting rights (and soon ivory sales) deliver funds to protect animals.
Although legal ivory trade involves the death of a particular elephant, it may be the surest way to protect the species. All the evidence has shown that regulated ivory trade is sustainable, provides much-needed revenue directly to local communities and is environmentally sound - since sound resource management necessitates elephant culling. Importantly the ivory market in Japan is very stable. Twenty-thousand retail outlets sell hankos, popular signature seals given to boys to mark the beginning of manhood. Plastic imitations will not do, so this demand will be constant, providing certainty to African sellers. Also, ivory stockpiles are being used up and the hankos market is hungry for supplies - without legal trade illegal sources would probably be sought.
Environmentalists claim that illegal wildlife trade is globally second only to the drug trade in value, perhaps being worth more than $5 billion annually. It is time to take the money away from the criminals and give it to the Africans who look after the animals.
Roger Bate is director of the Environment Unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs, and has just returned from South Africa, where he was advising the government on water policy
Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999