Why the Ivory Ban is Failing

Christian Science Monitor
March 20, 1996

By Urs P. Kreuter and Linda E. Platts

It is an image that can't be forgotten: A dozen African elephants lie dead and rotting at the edge of a forest, their faces mutilated by chainsaws used to hack off their tusks. Their picture, in an advertisement sponsored by the International Wildlife Coalition, horrified newspaper readers in April 1989. The message: Stop the international trade in ivory and thereby stop the massacre.

The message got through. Ivory trade was banned. Yet the killing goes on and won't stop until African villagers reap real benefits from protecting their elephants.

The ban was enacted in 1989 by the member nations of the world's largest conservation organization (known as CITES), but poaching has increased in at least five of the nine countries studied by the African Elephant Specialist Group in 1994. Poaching decreased only in areas where law enforcement was heavily augmented by external funds and these funds are drying up.

The ban shut down most legal markets for ivory, but now black markets are flourishing. Although prices fluctuate widely, a kilogram of unworked ivory, which sold for around $200 before the ban, was reported to be selling for as much as $2,000 in 1993. Custom agents seized 2,500 illegal ivory shipments in 30 countries between 1989 and 1994.

The ban reflected vastly different views about elephants. To the Westerners who supported the ban, elephants are charismatic creatures. Their size, intelligence and engaging social behavior make them aesthetically and emotionally appealing. The elephant also is central to the Western image of "wild Africa."

For Africans struggling to survive under dire living conditions, however, the elephant is often despised. It is a threat to their crops, their homes and even their lives. An elephant on a rampage will trample people, wreck villages and ruin crops. In one violent spree, an elephant returned night after night to the same Zimbabwe village, destroying supplies of maize, groundnuts and cotton.

Poverty makes protection of elephants extremely difficult. In Zambia, two villagers told a judge that they helped a poacher in exchange for a bag of sugar and a pair of pants.

Yet, proponents of the ban ignored the impact of poverty. They also ignored the fact that although elephant numbers declined dramatically in the 1980s in parts of Africa, elephants were thriving in much of southern Africa. Contrary to the impression given by groups like the International Wildlife Coalition, there was no continent-wide threat of extinction.

South Africa, for example, has maintained a consistently stable elephant population. Before the ban, it used ivory revenues to pay for fencing preserves and otherwise providing security, as well as actively promoting wildlife tourism. The managers of parks in South Africa culled elephant herds to reduce habitat destruction from overabundant numbers.

In a few countries, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa, attempts are being made to give indigenous people incentives to value elephants positively and thus ensure their survival. In Zimbabwe, a community-based program called CAMPFIRE (Communal Area Management Program for Indigenous Resources), continues to have some success because it allows local villagers to benefit from the elephants that would otherwise be their enemy.

CAMPFIRE generates revenues primarily through hunting and photographic safaris. The main source of income is from the sale of elephant hunting opportunities to foreign hunters eager to acquire trophy ivory. Some of this money is returned to the villages and individual households.

In 1993, CAMPFIRE provided $40,500 to the Zimbabwean village of Masoka, which previously had depended on subsistence farming. Residents used the money to build a clinic, a schoolhouse, and a fence to protect the village from wild animals. Recognizing the value of their wildlife, they established an anti-poaching squad.

Unfortunately, not all of the money owed to the villagers by CAMPFIRE has been passed on to them, and often disbursements are slow and erratic. Although the system is flawed, it clearly demonstrates that wildlife markets can serve both rural people and conservation goals.

Recognizing the importance of CAMPFIRE, the head of Kenya's Wildlife Services, David Western, recommended that villages in Kenya, too, must be allowed to materially benefit from wildlife. Since Kenya championed the ivory trade ban, this approach is a radical reversal and a recognition that past policies do not work.

Perhaps this change of heart in Kenya marks a turning point. If African nations can provide positive incentives to protect elephants, then perhaps other nations of the world can rescind the ivory trade ban.

Urs P. Kreuter, Ph.D., is a contributing author of Wildlife in the Marketplace (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995). Linda E. Platts is an editor with PERC.

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Linda is responsible for the PERC web sites, media relations, the national journalism conference, and the media fellows program. She is author of Forest Fires, part of a series of  environmental education books for high school students. She also wrote and produced Square One, a newsletter that introduced grassroots environmentalists to market...
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