The UK government has proposed a total ban on the sale of ivory. This is a very very good move. It is likely to lead to a significant cut in the ivory that comes into the UK. The problem that has occurred over the last few decades is that while it is legal to sell ivory from before 1947 it is almost impossible for anyone but experts to be able to tell when the ivory has actually come from. As such this means that great quantities of ivory products that have been created recently has then been disguised as antique ivory and has been illegally sold in the UK anyway.
There are potentially still a few places where illegal ivory will be able to make it into the market. One of the most obvious routes is there will still be an allowance for antique ivory but only on a case-by-case basis. There will also be an allowance for ivory on musical instruments provided it has less than 20% of the volume of the instrument. This is a good way of trying to tackle the trade as it has been shown over time that having some ivory allowed and others not simply gives easy caveats from which to bring in illegal ivory.
There have been a number of different attempts over the years to find a way to allow ivory to be traded or indeed to temporarily allow ivory to be traded so as to significantly decrease the value that people put on it. Unfortunately all these attempts have tended to backfire . One of the most noticeable attempts of the last few decades to do this occurred in 2008. A group of countries from Southern Africa were given the permission to sell a large amount of their ivory stocks. In recent years it has become common practice to remove ivory from elephants that have died naturally so that it does not sit around and if found can be sold on the black market. However over time this ivory builds up and the southern African countries had hundreds of tons of ivory sitting in vaults.
The concept is that by releasing a large quantity of ivory on to the market it forces down the price of ivory and makes it not financially viable for people to run the huge risks of going illegally into national parks to try to kill elephants. The attempt to poach elephants is highly dangerous, both in terms of the fact that the government in charge of the national park is trying to stop it and in many places is allowed to use live ammunition to stop poachers, however this is not the only danger. Walking in the bush is inherently dangerous, there are large numbers of animals that are highly dangerous and it is very easy to accidentally be injured or killed by these.
Furthermore the name the Big Five is a term for lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo, and they are known as such because they are the most dangerous five animals to hunt on foot. They are very strong animals and often are not killed instantly. When injured these five animals often take a significant length of time to die and are highly likely to cause significant injury to the hunter before they go down. In addition animals such as elephants make this far more complicated because being highly intelligent animals and being able to communicate over many miles they are able to warn herds of the danger. This means that it is often the case that once one elephant is killed all the elephants in that protected area are likely to become far more aggressive, this means that they become far harder to use for photographic tourism which in most parts of Africa is vastly more profitable than hunting as hunting, which by its very definition only takes money from a small handful of people. Unfortunately, this is also the case where in the past elephant populations have been controlled over time by regular culling. It is impossible, obviously, for this to be done without the elephants being aware. Unfortunately in the past the controls that would have naturally occurred which would have kept elephant populations in check are no longer working. This is because for many of them these controls would have occurred when the area ceases being able to support the elephant population and the elephants would migrate across highly unsuitable terrain to get to other good habitat. While there are parts of Africa that are being improved along these lines to allow these migration routes to exist again it is hard work and is likely to not be suitable in many parts of the Continent.
Now, why am I talking about poaching in an article about allowing legal ivory or not? The reason for that is very simple: after this large one off sale supposedly of ivory from Southern African countries, people around the world thought this may become a regular thing. In the five or so years after this one off ivory sale the forest elephants of West Africa were decimated, these it should be noted are as closely related to the mammoth as they are to their Savannah cousins. Furthermore there were populations in East Africa of Savannah elephants that were hit very heavily by poaching. one of the most notable places was the Selous which lost perhaps as many as 90,000 elephants out of a population of only around 110,000. Similar effects happened on other areas in the last poaching epidemic such as the Tsavo national park in Kenya which lost most of its elephants. This must not be repeated in the future.
In summary what I’m trying to say is that on every occasion in the past few decades where small amounts of ivory have been legally sold, for often good reasons, it has proved to have been a big mistake. I do not necessarily agree with much of what the government is currently deciding to do, but elephant ivory is certainly something that should never be bought or sold as it is impossible to tell where and when it came from, and therefore it is far too easy for it to lead to more poaching.