An Improbable Elephant and Rhino Conservation Concept

This is an update of an essay written in December 2015. I believe, especially in the light of the February 2017 proposal by South Africa to reopen the domestic trade in rhino horn (Notice 74 of 2017 National Environment Management : Biodiversity Act, 2004), when purchased for “personal use”, that difficult and costly, but innovative and holistic measures are now called for - if, not just elephant and rhino, but all of Africa’s wildlife and wild areas, are to survive. (The following acknowledges the submission prepared for CITES : Background Study : Decision-Making Mechanisms and Necessary Conditions for a Future Trade in African Elephant Ivory. R.B. Martin, D.H.M. Cumming, G.C. Craig, D.St.C. Gibson, D.A. Peake May 2012)


An improbable idea - because those who have the resources and the political means have other agendas, and dogma clouds reality and innovation. Nevertheless, there needs to be wider and more objective and honest debate from both sides of the trade / no-trade divide about how to ensure the future of Africa’s wildlife and to develop her rural people by integrating them into that goal …?

Throughout Africa the demands of rapidly growing human populations on land and natural resources are resulting in unsustainable rural land-use and, therefore, pressure on ecosystems and wildlife. Nevertheless, despite the deteriorating ecological status and economic circumstance of many rural and wild areas, wildlife conservation and socio-economic development within those areas are still, potentially, mutually beneficial, not exclusive.

The issues of ecosystem degradation and the threats to wildlife on the continent are frequently exacerbated by amoral politics; a lack of coherent land-use planning and, thus, inappropriate land-use; poor quality rural education and training and, thus, poor human resource capacity; uncoordinated and inadequate investment into appropriate sectors and programmes, and, critically, a lack of value attached to, and investment in, ecosystem services.

Elephant are just one, admittedly high profile and ecologically significant, element in the whole complexity. The current wave of elephant poaching and illegal ivory trafficking in Africa is potentially devastating to the species; to wildlife conservation in general and to the economic development opportunities for rural communities. The solution is extremely complex; as multi-facetted as the problem, and it requires simultaneous and coordinated action on a number of fronts by both supplier and consumer nations. Unfortunately, at every junction of the chain from elephant to end user; from anti-poaching efforts to retailers, it is fraught with corruption and greed. 

The search for the solution is itself fraught with disagreement, frequently compounded by the individual egos of “renown” conservationists and the financial agendas of conservation organisations. Fundamentally, and rather simplistically in the case of ivory, the controversy revolves around whether to allow a legal trade or not. What we cannot deny is that the bans on trade in wild animals and products have not reduced poaching. Also, to suggest that the one-off sales of ivory are the cause of the current levels of elephant poaching is without basis - the spike in rhino poaching and pangolin trafficking, for example, has come about without any such “cause”. However, one-off sales are not logical and only serve to cause confusion … and dissension.

For thousands of years ivory has been used to craft exquisitely beautiful works of art, ornamental adornments, musical instruments and religious artefacts that have always been in demand and, it seems probable, always will. Like other beautiful commodities, such as diamonds and gold, ivory has value because people appreciate its beauty and rarity.

“Does eliminating the legal trade, taking away the legitimate value of ivory, not foreclose an opportunity to use elephant, including it’s ivory, as part of the solution to sustainable rural economic development; and, therefore, to its own survival, and even population recovery?”

Regrettably, in my opinion, the high profile destruction of ivory stockpiles before and since the London Conference and Declaration in early 2014 has been little more than posturing by politicians and fundraising grandstanding by some rather disingenuous conservation organisations. Was the latest media and “celebrity” pageant put on by Kenya in burning its stockpile not just, as it was the first time, a stunt to secure funding grants - that go who knows where? I would suggest that such extravagant displays have little, if any, effect on most of the significant buyers, and no effect on the syndicates masterminding the poaching and trafficking effort. The loss of ivory to symbolic burning and crushing only has the cartels placing the next order.

One might also ask why the President of Kenya, when lighting the fire, did not toss the Presidential ivory and ebony mace upon the pyre?

Ivory has value and that value creates an opportunity, not just a threat. The threat comes from the lack of control of corruption and illegal trading. If we are to turn the poachers into rangers; decimate the illegal trade and provide the means for elephants to benefit from an expansion of range, and rural people from a long term, economically viable and ecologically sustainable wildlife land-use option; then a well designed, organised and policed trade in ivory that ensures consistent, long term supply through a single sales source to a registered and monitored system of buyers, craftsmen and retailers, should not be discounted ….. not yet.

(Theoretically, natural mortality and sustainable harvesting from a population of 500000 elephant @ 5% per annum could be 25000)

Economic theories of supply and demand seem to have little validity in this debate as the variables are numerous, unquantifiable, illogical and, in some cases, currently unknown. Arguments from both sides of the trade debate, whether concerns about demand stimulation through trade or suggestions of price reduction by supply levels, are equally rather spurious. It is unlikely that demand can be eliminated, and nigh impossible that supply could flood the market and change the risk to reward dynamic sufficiently to totally eliminate poaching. Making use of ivory to support ecosystem conservation and rural development needs to do neither.

Whether it is possible to design and implement such a trade system, given the extent of corruption and criminality, is uncertain. Continue as we are, however, and the demise of the elephant has, I would suggest, a high degree of certainty. Perhaps, if there were an option to place a moratorium on all trading of ivory for a definite, but extendable, period, with the ability to store all existing stocks of raw and worked ivory out of economic reach, then :

*  the implementation of a legal, controlled trade could be investigated and planned;
*  future options for the use of ivory to fund wildlife conservation and rural community economic development would not be foreclosed;
*  the current opinions and positions of both trade and no trade advocates could, albeit with some compromise on both sides, be satisfied.

The practical difficulties and cost of implementing a secure trade option are immense, but the same can be said of the current problem of dealing with the illegal harvesting, and potential extinction of the elephant, using only existing strategies - which are not stemming the tide. 

There is no doubt that any system of trading in ivory would be open to abuse and the infiltration of illegal ivory. Trade in any valuable commodity always will be. However, in this case, on the one hand the source of the commodity is a naturally reproducing animal - ideally one that has died naturally or, at least, legally - and on the other, the “extinction is forever” factor is in play. Neither trade nor no-trade will stop the poaching completely, but there is a possibility of bringing it under control and diverting the proceeds of elephant deaths into securing the species’ future, rather than into the coffers of those who would use those funds in criminal and terrorism activities.

What might be worth considering is not the immediate opening of a legal trade in ivory, but rather a moratorium on all trade for a specified period and the holding of ivory stocks out of economic reach by a secure and “trusted” independent organisation (see below); thus preventing the foreclosure of options. The result would, at the very least, be to demonstrate whether with a total closure of trade there is a decline in the poaching effort on elephant - something that in 27 years of trade restrictions, has yet to be demonstrated - and whether the trafficking of ivory, in an environment uncomplicated by the confusion of a limited legal trade in some domestic markets, could be infiltrated and eliminated. In addition, securing all ivory under a single organisation with well designed security measures and a high level of governance, should provide a strong and acceptable framework through which to pursue the elimination of corruption along the supply chain.

For this concept to be successful, it would require the full commitment of all the range states and the end user countries, as well as for the world to invest heavily during the moratorium. Firstly, into the establishment and operation of the “control” system. Secondly, into the socio-economic development of rural communities living with elephants, whose land could become the new frontiers of wildlife and natural resource based economies, with elephant as a key element. Thirdly, into pursuing the other essential tactics of anti-poaching; legal and judicial measures; education and training, and demand reduction, as well as into the apprehension of existing trafficking cartels and the seizure of illegal stocks for placement into Secure Ivory Stores.

If the establishment of a controlled legal trade that feeds its proceeds into environmental and wildlife conservation proves not to be possible, then those who would “save the elephant”, but do so from the moral position bestowed by the comfort of a warm and secure home and a full belly, need to stand up alongside the range states to meet both the opportunity cost (alternative land-use) and the real costs (crop and livestock losses) that have to be born by those who live with wildlife. However, that does not only imply simple conservation project grants or crop / animal loss compensation payments, but substantial financial and capacity building support for the establishment of sustainable socio-economic enterprise and development alternatives, that include wildlife as a key element of a rural economy driven by local communities. Not to mention payments for the globally vital ecosystem services that are protected by those communities living in the wild areas that we all want to see conserved.


An option to create an alternative to a complete ban on trade in ivory

* Create a specifically designed and independent organisation, possibly under the jurisdiction of the United Nations (United Nations Ivory Control Organisation - UNICO), to establish a system of Secure Ivory Stores (SIS) in both source and destination countries, where the entire stock of world ivory could be placed out of economic reach, and into which all “new” ivory from natural mortality; all other sources of elephant mortality and from seized illegal ivory could be deposited.

*  Secure Ivory Stores would need to be hosted in countries and at locations agreed by all Parties, namely the signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Both source and destination countries would need to participate. Sites would be necessary in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

*  Access to, and control of, each Secure Ivory Store and its ivory would be strictly limited to certified staff of the UNICO. Each site would also be protected by a host country Ivory Security Unit (UNISU), specifically trained and equipped for the task and answerable to the UN, not the Government of the country within which the SIS is located. Collection and transfer of initial stocks and “new” ivory would be the responsibility of the Ivory Security Unit and monitored by UNICO.

*     National stocks would be registered and remain the national property of the source country. These ivory stocks could, alternatively, be paid for by the UN and the funds ring fenced for conservation projects within the source countries. An Allocations Board made up of members agreed by the Parties and under the auspices of the UNICO, could control the “price” and allocation of the funds and provide oversight on their application.

*      Legitimate private stocks could be registered in the same manner. Stocks held by legitimate retailers in those countries which still have a domestic trade would need to be bought by the UNICO in order to remove them from circulation and compensation paid to these legitimate businesses.

*     In order not to lose the skills and talent of the best existing artistic ivory carvers and sculptures, nor potentially productive time, secure carving locations could be established alongside the Asian and Oriental SISs. Registered ivory could be supplied and the works of art produced would remain in the SIS during the moratorium. During the same period carvers could be trained onto suitable alternative materials. Payment for the carvers and for the raw ivory supplied would need to be covered by UNICO.

*      All ivory outside of the Secure Ivory Stores would then be illegal, unless registered with the UNICO. This would allow for existing items in museums (see below : British Royal Ivory Collection) and musical instruments, for example, to continue to serve their purpose. Similarly for all ivory taken in legal, approved safari hunting programmes - also stored by UNICO. It would also make the tackling of the illegal trade and trafficking somewhat less confusing and easier to deal with; including buying time to locate and confiscate the illegal stockpiles which have been built up in the last ten years.

*     Should the decision be taken to implement a controlled legal trade, then the UNICO could simply add the sale control and buyer registration and monitoring functions to its portfolio. The Secure Ivory Stores would become the point of sale, with the system of holding all new ivory stocks in the Secure Ivory Stores remaining in situ.

*     Also, should there be an unanimous decision be to completely eliminate any future trade, then all the existing stocks of ivory would be immediately available for destruction by the UNICO.

Although elephant seem to present an unusual circumstance in the issue of trade in wildlife products for which the UNICO and SIS system might serve a purpose, there may well be a case to argue for a similar system for rhino horn, a shared system even. Rhino do not need to die to provide their horn. The demand for rhino horn is not based on science, but is embedded in a powerful system of belief in traditional medicine and in cultural prestige that is thousands of years old. Those two issues might suggest that to build the whole rhino conservation strategy on the “moral” premise that rhino should not be “utilised”;  that their horn actually has no medicinal value; that dagger handles can be made of substitutes and that the use of its horn should be illegal, is a something of a denial of reality - regardless of our scientific and moral standpoint.


British Royal Ivory Collection (February 2014)
“ …………………. My suggestion to the Princes would be to temper their enthusiasm with pragmatism; not to foreclose options, and to remember that it is the rural people living with elephants that will finally determine how, perhaps even whether, elephants survive …. or not. They are the people who have a major role to play in the reduction of poaching and the creation of opportunities for elephants to occupy old ranges; ranges which only people occupy now. I must say it again, we need to provide incentives to protect, not just disincentives to illegal activity.

If, in light of the discussion above, I may add another suggestion for Prince William. It is that rather than destroy a priceless, exquisite and historically important Royal Collection, use it as part of the education process. Give it a long term value in the fight, rather than a one-off symbolic gesture that may not have as much significance in the greater scheme of things. The elephants that the ivory came from are dead. Do not let that be in vain.

Place the Ivory Throne of India given to Queen Victoria, along with other pieces, in a display in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Place the rest in a similar display in the Natural History Museum. Support both with a powerful educational message. That way many thousands of people will get, and continue to get, an emphatic message about the value of wildlife and wild places, and the threat which the illegal trafficking of wildlife products poses, in perpetuity.”

Curriculum Vitae                                                   Conservation    Community    Commerce    Culture                                      © David Peddie 2017