The Ivory Trade and Never Ending War Against Poaching
2017, will be remembered as the year China, the biggest consumer of ivory goods, banned legal ivory trading. The Chinese government is already taking steps in the right direction and has shut down nearly half of its licensed ivory facilities. On a global scale, the ivory trade has been banned since 1989, but some countries have continued to permit internal domestic trading. Until recently, China was the biggest one of them. Actions of this kind are necessary, since the gentle giants of our planet are in more danger than ever, with less than 500 thousand of them roaming the heir natural habitats.
Elephants have been killed for their tusks for centuries. However, what was once an infrequent act to retrieve the tusks for religious ceremonies or for their 'healing properties', became a lucrative industry alongside the rise of colonialism. Wealthy nations loved ivory, a substance that can be carved into the most intricate designs without splitting or decaying. Owning ivory became a status symbol and a way to demonstrate one's wealth. Going on safaris to see elephants and the mass production of ivory goods became common practice, that involved the massacre of many of these creatures. In 1800, there were 26 million elephants. Today there are less than half a million.
Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Gabon, Congo, and Cameroon are the main illicit (although we argue that all ivory is obtained illicitly) sources of ivory today. In these developing countries that are still struggling with poverty, becoming a poacher is a quick way to earn money. Eager customers from Eastern countries such as China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand are often willing to pay thousands of dollars per kilogram of tusks where ivory is primarily used for religious artifacts and decorative items.
Not long ago, it was discovered that this profitable industry also has ties to terrorist organizations, who use the money obtained from smuggling ivory to finance their warfare. The most prominent of these terror organizations involved in making ivory a conflict resource are the militant Islamist groups such as Boko Haram from Nigeria and the Somali terrorist movement Al Shabab. The latter are closely tied to poaching in Kenya, and it is estimated that they are earning between $200,000.00 and $600,000.00 USD each month from illegal activities related to the ivory poaching trade.
Individual efforts by people interested in protecting the elephants by either guarding the animals, painting their tusks to make them less attractive to poachers, or performing voodoo in order to spread rumors that they are jinxed have proven to be in vain so far. Poachers and militants don't shy away from killing elephants in order to reach their goal – the tusks. In 2016 alone, it is estimated that 8% of the elephant population was lost due to poaching, while their annual natural increase was only around 5%.
Despite the macabre exploits for tusks by poachers, there is now a light on the horizon for elephants to enjoy a brighter future. Due to the involvement of rebels and militants in ivory trading, Western countries have begun looking upon poaching as a security threat. At the same time, African countries have demonstrated great efforts to put this issue on the global political agenda.
The biggest diplomatic milestone was the creation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989, a multilateral treaty whose main goal is to protect animal and plant species from becoming extinct due to trading. That same year, CITES implemented a global ban on ivory trading, thanks to which, the ivory prices plummeted, and elephant populations began to increase. However, because of intense lobbying from certain groups in power, CITES allowed Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe a "one-time" opportunity to sell the ivory that was lying on their stockpiles to Japan in 1999. Yet, it turned out this event wasn't a "one-time" deal, after all, so CITES allowed African countries to sell over 100 ton of ivory to China and Japan in 2008. The consequences of these actions were devastating. The price of ivory and the interest in it skyrocketed again and more elephants were butchered. It is estimated that around 100 thousand elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012.
An act that has both symbolic and practical impact on the current situation is the practice of ivory burns. The first ivory burn occurred in July 1989 in Kenya, when Kenya's then-President Daniel Arap Moi set fire to 12 ton of elephant tusks. This has proven to be an effective method of sending a message to both the poachers and their customers so countries like Gabon, the Philippines, China, Hong Kong, and the USA, followed in Kenya's footsteps, and burned their stockpiles.
Each act is a double-edged sword
Unfortunately, there is no consensus on the right thing to do. Some critics believe that instead of lowering the demand, conducting ivory burns and banning legal ivory trading will only make the ivory more desirable. There are others, who have suggested creating "ivory farms", and "humanely" killing elephants in government-controlled processes. But the prevalent opinion regarding a solution to the problem is that government accountability to nations struggling with this issue should be enforced more stringently.
One thing is for sure: the supplies can't be destroyed effectively if there is still a demand for ivory. Dealing with this requires a broad, thorough and long-term narrative. Elephants are an iconic attraction of the African identity. Allowing them to become extinct would be equal to losing part of the cultural heritage of the people in those areas, and it would serve as a painful reminder that this man-made issue was fueled by greed - until the very end.