Ivory Trade: Has CITES inadvertently doomed Africa’s elephants?

Cites agreeing to allow Southern African nations Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe to sell off their ivory in once-off auctions to Japan in 1999, and again to Japan and China in 2008, may have been the catalyst in the recent spike in ivory poaching and seizures of illegal ivory.

This auction broke the zero tolerance trade embargo on ivory that Cites had put in place in 1990, leaving ivory traders and buyers “unaware” of the legality surrounding the trade. Unscrupulous traders, with the help of corrupt officials, can blur the lines of legal and illegal ivory. National Geographic’s article in 2012 claims that at least 25000 elephants were illegally killed last year. This id based on the reported number of elephants killed that have been found by officials, as well as being calculated on the amount of ivory that has been confiscated. The figure thus does not take into account the un-confiscated ivory or elephant corpses that were never recovered. In effect the number of dead elephants could be much higher. Also worrying is the manner in which the elephants have been killed.

Last year, Chadian and Sudanese poachers slaughtered around 650 elephants in a matter of weeks in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park. This year another 89 were killed in Garamba National Park in Chad. These single large-scale killings made headlines because of their enormous size. Particularly victims of this recent jump are the forest elephants in central Africa, because ivory carvers in the Far East prefer their harder tusks for creating sculptures. The sculptures are stunningly intricate and are sold as works of art. In China, where the popular conception is that tusks, which translate into Chinese as “teeth”, grow back. In effect, harvesting the teeth of live elephants is not actually cruel, and an IFAW study has claimed that many Chinese and Buddhists, where ivory is a recognisable symbol of religious following, do not know that the acquisition of ivory entails the killing of the animal.

Because of ivory’s high value, it must be asked what African states’ policy is with regard to losing the ivory. Essentially the ivory trade can be compared to the trade in blood diamonds. Like diamonds, the ivory resources are forming integral parts of non-African economies. The ivory, like diamonds is often gained illegally. It is difficult to trace ivory and diamonds once it has been successfully smuggled and cut.

But at the end of the day Africa is losing wealth. The wealth it loses takes the form of poached ivory that flows out of the continent. Additionally, every set of tusks involves another dead elephant – which constitutes a loss in tourism money, biodiversity and jobs. The key to African states protecting the elephants or ivory wealth lies in its recognition that it is not just losing many expendable animals, but is seeing potential millions of dollars flowing off the continent. If this loss could be measured, perhaps Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe would think twice about opening the door for extermination of the African elephants.

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We’ll fight them in their minds and show them “The World is Not Theirs”!

This weekend at 2013 CITES conference in Bangkok, an official from South Africa’s delegation, Fundisile Mketeni, hinted that legalizing the rhino horn trade should no longer be considered taboo if the country was to stand any chance of saving its rhino populations.

This comes as a shock, but an almost inevitable move, as the South African government struggles to solve the rhino-poaching crisis, which has seen 146 animals killed  (107 of them in the Kruger National Park) for their horns in 2013 alone.

It seems the South African government has admitted defeat in its battle against rhino poaching on its own soil, if Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa’ s speech at the conference on Friday was anything to go by, when she called for a united international effort against rhino poaching.

The price of rhino horn is currently at about R400 000 per kilogramme, making it worth more than its weight in gold. Or the United Kingdom’s street price for cocaine, which is a more apt comparison; especially considering the way rhino horn gets used nowadays when it reaches its end buyer. I wonder what a modern day climax of 1980s film Scarface would look if Al Pacino were snorting a mountain of rhino horn instead of cocaine.

A modern day version of this scene may replace the cocaine with rhino horn

A modern day version of this scene may replace the cocaine with rhino horn

So there we have it: a kilo of keratine equals a kilo of cocaine – and apparently has the same effect. Many campaigners are using the rhino-horn-is-like-fingernail argument to show how ridiculous this trade is, yet to a trader or buyer, the fact that a mighty rhino had to die for that kilo of magic is what makes a lump of keratine a lucrative commodity. How or where the rhino actually dies hardly matters.

This being the case, both solutions of either legalizing the trade to decrease the frequency of illegal poaching (but not necessarily the number of animals killed), or maintaining the illegal rhino horn trade to stem the flow of rhino horn out of South Africa, are doomed to fail. New buyers of rhino horn in the economically prospering Asian Tigers countries, Vietnam or China are wealthy – probably wealthy enough to buy the same amount in cocaine. And the number of people able to afford rhino horn is increasing, hence the spike in poaching in South Africa.

Ideas of farming rhinos specifically for their horns or creating fake rhino horn and thus diluting the horn market have been touted. Yet I would be surprised to see well-off buyers splashing out on keratine that they know has been farmed or faked. It would take the “hardcore factor” and status symbol out of having rhino horn. Buyers want the “real” thing.

The illicitness and danger of rhino horn trading makes it so lucrative and desirable. The consequences of being caught are steep – in China, illegal possession of rare animal products can mean life imprisonment. Currently anti-poaching units are fighting the wrong battle – the real war is to convince the wealthy buyer that his money is better spent on cocaine rather than on rhino horn.

The fact that South Africa, the continent’s most well resourced nation and thus most capable of defending its rhinos, cannot stop the illegal poaching is testament to this. The armed-to-the-teeth rangers, electric fences and helicopters don’t stand a chance against a combination of limitless cash and desperate poachers.

Molewa is right – we do need a ‘united poaching fight’ – but the battlefield will be mind of the rich buyer, not in the thorny African bush.