A disproportionate amount of the agenda at The 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) was dominated by African elephants and the controversial issue of the ivory trade. African elephants have declined by more than 100,000 over the past decade. This is driven to a large extent by the surge in poaching due to the rising price of ivory.
The debate on how to respond to this crisis is very polarised. On the one side countries like Namibia, supported by pro-use NGOs, argue that hundreds of thousands of elephants have been lost to poaching since the ban was put in place in 1989 and that it has served as an incentive to poachers because it reduces supply and increases prices.
Their proposed solution is a highly regulated legal trade in ivory that will provide funds for conservation and incentives to rural people to conserve elephants and their habitat.
The opposing argument is that only a complete trade ban - both domestic and international - can work because the continued existence of domestic ivory markets, and one-off sales of ivory stockpiles, enables poached ivory to be laundered. This in turn fuels the poaching crisis. Countries like Kenya, strongly supported by animal welfare organisations and some conservation NGOs, hold this view.
It is this second perspective that has the strongest support as reflected by a large majority of member countries of the World Conservation Union adopting a motion to support the closure of domestic ivory markets. This momentum continued at the CITES CoP17 with an agreed resolution encouraging the closure and tighter enforcement of domestic ivory markets.
But the 27-year old ban on international ivory trade has clearly failed to deliver a sustained solution to the poaching crisis. Yes, it has helped reduce poaching in some areas, but it is unclear that the stronger ban that includes the closing down of domestic markets will help conserve elephants.
Resounding no to ivory trade
The proposals by Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell ivory were defeated. Opponents of these proposals argued that any sale was likely to further stimulate demand and would enable laundering of illegal ivory.
The strong opposition is despite the fact that studies commissioned by CITES - that the parties to CITES agreed to and participated in - found no evidence that previous stockpile sales resulted in an increased poaching. The last one took place in 2009. Instead, these studies, and peer-reviewed research found that variables such as poverty levels, law enforcement capacity, governance and corruption, and commodity and investment cycles were more important in explaining poaching levels.
An era of populism
But we live in an era of populism where simple silver bullet solutions to complex problems gain support. Examples include BREXIT and building walls to keep out unwanted immigrants. A global international and domestic ban on ivory is a similarly appealing simple solution to a complex challenge that manifests differently in different countries.
In both South Africa and Namibia, for example, sustainable use of wildlife is enshrined in the constitution. And enforcing a domestic ban faces serious legal difficulties. In addition, China, one of the largest consumer countries, has already agreed to enforce a domestic ivory ban.
It is therefore unclear what additional gains there are from a continued push for a domestic ban in all countries. Critics feel that the underlying reasoning and motivations are simplistic and questionable. Yet the path of stricter bans is what the world has chosen on ivory at this point - and pro-use southern African countries and NGOs need to come to terms with this.
Taking a new view
The push for a global ban of international and domestic markets should be seen as a policy experiment. It may work to reduce poaching which will be a tremendous outcome for Africa’s elephants. But the conservation community needs to make sure that this stronger ban is not just rhetoric. The impact of actions like the continued ban on international trade and the closure of the Chinese and other domestic ivory markets need to be monitored, and measured. To this effect, the following measures are urgently needed.
An agreed, independent, rigorous, framework and mechanism in which the price of ivory is monitored on the black market. If the strategy of more encompassing bans is successful in reducing demand, the price of ivory will drop, and continue to drop.
Attitudes towards purchasing ivory in demand countries. The motivations of buyers of ivory in countries like China are diverse. Rigorous surveys that draw from disciplines like psychology, economics, and criminology are needed to assess whether the attitudes, intentions and behaviour of potential buyers and ivory investors are changing.
In African range states, where ivory is sourced, robust monitoring, research, and analyses are needed to understand whether changes in the demand market are ultimately leading to decreased poaching levels, and lower poaching effort.
By setting in place mechanisms to track these variables, the conservation community can track the success of this strategy. If the current push for a stricter ban fails, as some scholars predict a system is needed to recognise this sooner rather than later, so that alternative strategies can be pursued. At the same time, if the closure of domestic markets succeeds in reducing the price of ivory and poaching – the pro-use nations and NGOs need to accept this.
Critically, even if a tighter ban resolves the poaching crisis - this is only one challenge facing elephants. Elephants require habitat to survive. The ivory trade is one important source of revenue in countries like Namibia to support elephant and habitat conservation. If this option disappears, and with increasing pressure on trophy hunting and the revenue it generates, alternative finance mechanisms urgently need to be sought.
Non-consumptive tourism is often touted, but tourism is a volatile market and can probably only sustainably support a fraction of Africa’s elephant populations. Novel finance mechanisms must be developed to ensure that community attitudes towards elephants and conservation do not worsen and that habitats for elephants are not transformed to agriculture and other non-conservation land-uses.
Ultimately, holistic, nuanced conservation strategies that are based on evidence and that are sustainable are required if African elephants are to be conserved for future generations.