Poaching a political problem
Marion Whitehead
04 October, 2014

In a world where poor governance and corruption is rife, particularly in those countries that are home to the largest remaining elephant populations, legalising the ivory trade is not realistic or advisable, says Dr Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society in the US in a recently published report, “Legal Ivory Trade in a Corrupt World and its Impact on African Elephant Populations”.

Professor Rudi van Aarde, chair of the Conservation Ecology Research Unit, Department of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria, agrees. “We [South Africa] do not have the capacity or inclination to manage trade in animal products,” he says. “Poaching is a problem, but nothing new. What is new is the participation of criminal syndicates, whose activities flourish under poor or improper governance.”

Bennett’s report counters arguments for the reversal of the 1989 CITES ban on all international commercial ivory trading. The South African authority’s policy of sustainable utilisation of wildlife puts it into the camp likely to support proposals to establish a controlled, legal trade in ivory. Rationales for this approach are that it would allow more effective regulation and control of the trade; legal sales would take pressure off wild populations by satisfying the demand for ivory currently met by poachers; and funds generated could be used to support the conservation of the species.

However, the “one off” legal sales of ivory stockpiles to China and Japan, allowed by CITES in 2007 and 2008 at the request of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, resulted in an escalation of poaching, according to the “Blood Ivory” report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

Illegal hunting of African elephants for ivory is causing rapid declines in their populations. Since 2007, the illegal ivory trade has more than doubled and African elephants are facing a serious threat to their survival. African savannah elephants in Central Africa lost 76% of their numbers between 1985 and 2010. Populations of elephants in East Africa have also been decimated and Southern African populations are under growing threat as the wave of poaching spreads.

Demand for ivory is growing, particularly in East Asia. It has been calculated that if 10% of households in the wealthy middle class in China each bought a 50g piece of ivory in 2012, then 32 000 elephants would need to have been killed – co-incidentally this is roughly the number of elephants poached across Africa in 2012. While these figures are probably a considerable underestimate, by 2022, at the current rate of households joining the wealthy middle class in China, some 163 000 elephants would be needed to supply ivory to 10% of these households.

Elephants are slow breeders and the possibility of meeting the growing demand for ivory in East Asia through implementing sustainable harvesting of tusks in a legalised system is low, points out Bennett.

Tight controls would be needed all along a legalised ivory trade chain, with management systems robust enough to prevent illegal hunting and leakage of illegal ivory into the legal trade chain. This would necessitate transparency, good governance and effective systems of enforcement to prevent the strongly incentivised illegal trade from further depleting elephant populations, argues Bennett.

China’s record of law enforcement is dismal: of 158 retail shops and carving factories visited by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) for its “Making a Killing” report, only 57 were licensed, representing a compliance rate of just 36% – and 60% of these licensed outlets were found to violate the system in some way. Despite high-level talks and agreements at international levels, China’s high-profit and low-risk illegal ivory trafficking continues to boom and is the single biggest threat to the continued existence of elephants.

The EIA’s “Blood Ivory” report demonstrated that stockpile sales created confusion among consumers in China who believed the ivory trade was legal, effectively breaking the integrity of the ban. The intention to flood the market with legal ivory in order to reduce its price actually had the opposite effect. “The influx of legal ivory into the market in China has spurred demand, pushed up prices and created a grey market in which legal ivory provides outlets and opportunities for illegal ivory to be sold,” noted the EIA report.

High prices paid for ivory means poaching takes place in a context where elephants are seen as walking jackpots. The temptation for poor locals to poach is high, enforcement officials are poorly paid and bribery is rampant.

Bennett cites recent research showing that corruption among government officials charged with implementing wildlife-related legislation is widespread, not only in Africa, but all along the trade chain. This can involve officials demanding bribes for compliance or political influence, and accepting bribes to overlook illegal activities; being paid to turn a blind eye to poaching or trafficking; to switch or alter CITES or other permits along the trade chain so that, through fraudulent paperwork, an illegal item seems legal; and to falsify certification at the point of processing or end point of sale.

Six of the eight countries identified by CITES as the worst offenders in ivory trafficking globally are in the bottom half of Transparency International’s 2013 list of most corrupt countries in the world.

Maintaining reliable permitting systems and leak-proof chains of custody for legal trade in this context would be virtually impossible, says Bennett. These systems would simply provide more opportunities for cash-flush illegal traders and crime networks, which always have the means to buy their way out of trouble. The financial incentives to break the law heavily outweigh those of abiding by it.

Speculators use stockpiles of ivory as financial instruments and the march towards extinction simply drives up their prices and holds the promise of greater profits.

Once illegal ivory has entered the legal trade, it is difficult or impossible for enforcement officers to know what is legal and illegal. Addressing corruption throughout a trade network that permeates countries across the globe will take decades, if it can ever be achieved. That will be too late for wild African elephants at current rates of loss.

If we are to conserve remaining wild populations, Bennett maintains we must close all markets because, under current levels of corruption, they cannot be controlled in a way that does not provide opportunities for illegal ivory being laundered into legal markets.

The drivers of the trade, legal or illegal, need to be changed through education and awareness to reduce the demand for ivory, destroying ivory stockpiles to ensure that leakage cannot occur and eliminating the possibility of corrupt officials selling it, closing down all markets before elephants are wiped out,enact clear and unambiguous laws against all commercial trade in ivory, taking enforcement seriously and allocating sufficient resources to it – with good enforcement on the ground, the tide of poaching can be slowed.

“Poaching is not an ecological problem, but a political one with ecological consequences,” points out Prof Van Aarde. “Solutions for the poaching crisis calls for dedicated political incentives informed by knowledge, rather than advocacy that calls for trade!”

– Elizabeth L. Bennett’s report, Legal Ivory Trade in a Corrupt World and its Impact on African Elephant Populations, was published in Conservation Biology, August 2014. The full report can be viewed here.