Sale of ivory stockpiles: Elephant in the room

HOPE Nyambe.

‘THE question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?’ The quote by British broadcaster and nature historian Sir David Attenborough, producer of iconic nature documentaries such as the ‘Planet Earth’ and ‘Our Planet’ series, sums up the imminent danger faced by elephants – extinction.
Although there have been significant strides made in conserving elephant population across the global,  such as the ban on ivory trading in most countries, the threat on elephants still remains. The threat to the species is twofold: the continued poaching of elephants and loss of habitat and the resulting conflicts with humans.
To mention, for example, 58 elephants were killed in South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park in 2018, with Botswana recording an overall of 128 elephants. Zambia also continues to record significant numbers of elephant poaching, although statistics are sketchy. Even in areas where there is significant elephant conservations measure in place, diminishing elephant habitat is bringing elephants in conflict with humans.
In most cases, its humans that are encroaching on elephant habitat, sometimes even in protected areas such as national game park. They are reported cases of elephants destroying farming fields with the retaliatory consequence been poisoning.
In a meeting scheduled for Botswana, Zambia will this week be joining other countries in the region in reviewing as to whether the worldwide ban on ivory trading should be lifted or not. Zambia has a reported 52 tonnes of Ivory in stock, with an estimated net worth of $100 million. The criterion for lifting the ban will hinge on the elephant population in the respective countries.
To date, China’s Ivory auction market remains the only legitimate post – ban commercial outlet for ivory sales.  A decision to lift or maintain the ban does raise a lot of sentiment amongst various interest groups.
Some sectors of society argue that lifting of the ivory ban will actually stimulate illegal trafficking and poaching of elephants. Over the years, even sanctioned ivory auctions have revealed potential loopholes for laundering illegal ivory and a lack of compliance to laws and regulations related to elephant ivory auctions. Increased security on the protection and conservation of elephant populations and habitat has also resulted in sophisticated international criminal syndicates.
Since the ban on international trade of ivory in 1989 by The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), there has been an increased demand for Ivory especially from Asian countries such as China.
In 2008, China and Japan were allowed to buy 107 tonnes of ivory stockpiles from elephants that had died naturally in the wild. The underlying rational was to flood the market and crash ivory prices, making it less profitable and attractive to poachers. However, this backfired and resulted in significant and geographically widespread increase in poaching.
There is no reason to believe that this won’t be the case if Zambia or any other regional country decide to offload their ivory stockpiles. This could actually provide the impetus for poaching and aid illegal stock piling until such a time when it’s feasible to offload the ivory.
The other argument however hinges on the economic assertion that the legal sale of ivory provides the much needed financial resource needed for elephant conservation. Monies raised for the legal sale of ivory can for example be invested in research, anti-poaching measures and projects that offer alternative livelihoods to poaching in affected areas. The money raised from selling ivory is vital in improving the livelihoods of communities around elephant habitats. The alternative to selling ivory is burning it.
They cite the largest ever incineration of ivory stockpiles (100 tonnes) worth over $105 million by Kenya in 2016. They argue that there is no empirical evidence so far that suggests that burning ivory stockpiles does actually reduce poaching. It in fact makes ivory become rarer therefore fetching higher prices on the black market. The $105 million could have been a huge investment in an impoverished Kenyan economy. They rather advocate for more stringent regulations regarding the sale of ivory. There should also be stiffer punishment for poaching as a deterrent.
Depending on which side of the wall you are standing, both arguments are plausible. The decision to either sell or not should hinge on the empirical evidence available on such action, with specific demographic implications taken into consideration. There is need to allow open and free discussion on the matter.
The author is a corporate communications specialist.

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