This group of Southern African countries are once again raising the prospect of them selling the ivory that they have accumulated over the years. In the majority of African countries that have wild elephants it is standard practice when Game Wardens come across dead elephants to remove the tusks. This is because it has been clearly shown that feeding the demand for ivory is a very strong way of increasing demand and to avoid people going looking for dead animals the tusks must be removed.
However over time this can build up to a very significant amount. Zimbabwe is currently sitting on $600 million (£470 million) cache of ivory. The other countries in this quartet have similarly large amounts of ivory stored. Between Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia these countries hold approximately 61% of the remaining wild elephants of Africa – a phenomenal statistic but one that gives away their position.
The previous poaching epidemic mostly hit east Africa, devastating the populations of Kenya and Tanzania and other countries. In the past, Tanzania would definitely have been a country that would rank among the largest populations of elephants but over the last 10 years they’ve been poached so badly that that is no longer always the case. This wave of poaching was caused by several things, not least the increasing purchasing power of citizens of China where wildlife protection is a less important idea, at least until recently, however it was set off by the supposed one time only sale by Southern African countries of ivory.
Over the last few decades the accepted expert opinion has been that occasional flooding of the market with legal one-off sales of ivory pushes the price down dramatically which makes the risks that poachers run not worth it. However when they did this in 2008 it did not work like that; the one off sales whetted the appetite of many countries for ivory, and after deleting the ivory from that one off sale they simply went elsewhere to look for it. The Southern African countries police their reserves relatively effectively and so the poachers turned to places such as Tanzania. Some parks, such as the Selous, were devastated, losing as much as 90,000 of their approximately 110,000 elephants ( though the estimate of a starting population of 110,000 may have been higher than it was given this was a park also hit hard in the 60s and 70s).
However as the number of elephants in East Africa declined and various people began to get organised to protect these reserves the poachers turned elsewhere.
The forest elephants from West Africa are as closely related to mammoths as they are to the savanna elephants of East and Southern Africa. Due to the fact that they are regularly walking narrow paths through forests their tusks are straighter and this is prized amongst buyers of ivory. Given the ease of hiding in a forest it is also far harder to protect Forest elephants than Savannah ones. The elephant population in Central Africa rainforests countries such as the DRC the reduction since 2001 is thought to be about 63%, and while not surveyed in all countries, the decline is thought to be similar across much of the range. Furthermore as populations and roads in the remotest parts of the African Rainforest increase this allows people, and therefore poachers, access to pockets of land which were up to this point immune from poaching.
Whether CITES will stand up to the bullying of Southern African countries is something that we will find out soon, however it is clear that for the population as a whole this should not be considered. It is entirely true that southern African countries have done a phenomenal job at halting the poaching and protecting the population while it recovered, and as far as they’re concerned they are due a reward for this good work. However there are two issues with this, one is the simple fact that doing the right thing does not always get rewarded and the other is that the world is now a global place: what is done in South Africa will impact what happens in East Africa, West Africa and the remaining populations of elephants in Asia. Even the argument of genetic analysis of tusks before sale does not help, as by the by the time the tusk is in the laboratory the elephant has been killed. I fully understand that protecting the elephants is an expensive endeavour for Southern African elephant range countries however selling the ivory from dead elephants is not something that can be done without encouraging killing of elephants in countries where they are not well protected. In the past the idea was floated of mining the Siberian tundra for frozen mammoth tusks that could be sold instead of elephant tusks, but in a similar way to above this cannot happen as any availability of ivory simply increases the demand for ivory.
If ivory could eventually be grown cheaply and in huge quality in laboratories in a similar way to growing meat without the animal then this might allow for a trade in ivory but until we can produce ivory and quantities that makes it dirt cheap this cannot happen as it will merely lead to an increase in poaching somewhere else in the elephants range.