The ban on trading ivory is unfair but necessary
Easing it would bring an increase in poaching
Nearly 6,000 species of animals and about 30,000 species of plants are listed in the various appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to protect them against over-exploitation.
But as CITES convenes its three-yearly decision-making conference in Geneva this month, one animal, as so often in the past, will attract much of the attention: the African elephant.
The elephant is in many ways CITES’s mascot. It was rescued in 1989 from what seemed inevitable extinction after half the population had been wiped out by poaching in just a decade. That year elephants were included in CITES’s Appendix I, under which virtually all international trade in their products is banned. The slaughter slowed.
This month’s meeting will consider competing proposals about how absolute the ban should be, since in some countries elephant populations have recovered. Countries seeking a modest relaxation have a strong case to make. But it is not strong enough. The ban must stay.
Understandably, countries that have done a good job protecting their elephants feel this is unfair. They point out that they have devoted huge resources to the elephant, through the costs of law enforcement alone.
And the real burden of all this is borne by poor local people who are in competition with wildlife for resources, and sometimes in conflict with it—elephants can be destructive. People and governments, so the argument goes, need to have an economic stake in the elephants’ survival. The ivory trade would give them one.
That’s why Zambia wants its elephants moved to the slightly less restrictive Appendix II, which would allow some trade in, for example, hunting trophies.
Four other southern African countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe), whose elephants were moved to Appendix II 20 years ago, want to be allowed to trade in their products, which, despite the change in status, they have mostly been prohibited from doing.
To understand why these reasonable-sounding proposals should be rejected, consider what has happened to elephant numbers since CITES most recently authorised some legal trade, when Botswana, Namibia and South Africa were allowed in 2007 to sell a fixed amount of ivory to Japan, as a one-off. Elephant numbers started falling again.
A survey conducted in 2014-15 estimated that elephant numbers had fallen by 30% across 18 countries since 2007; another estimated a decline of over 100,000 elephants, a fifth of the total number, between 2006 and 2015. Increased poaching was at least partly to blame.