Last month's announcement that some Southern African nations will be allowed limited sales of elephant ivory may well evoke anachronistic images of gruff, mustachioed colonials from the heydays of hunting. In 2002, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that combining conservation and commerce offers the greatest hope for improving the lot of both people and wildlife. The move could herald the future of conservation, where prohibitions on trade in wildlife are replaced with positive incentives for species and habitat conservation, which are far more likely to benefit help both people and animals.
The limited ivory sales were bolstered by the unexpected support of the United States, which has traditionally been one of the staunchest opponents of any and all international trade in elephant ivory. This surprise move took place at November's meeting of the UN-sponsored Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Santiago, Chile. Though the European Parliament passed a resolution urging its CITES negotiators to reject the African proposals, they abstained from voting against a largely unified African front that supported the ivory proposals.
Specifically, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa will be allowed one-off ivory sales of 20 metric tons (mt), 10mt, and 30mt respectively. This is the second time that CITES has permitted such a one-off sale. In 1999, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe sold almost 50 metric tons of ivory to Japan for about $5 million.
The CITES treaty has been around since 1973, but its only real success has been moral conviction, and it is best known for its longstanding ban on international sales of ivory.
When the ban on elephants was first passed in 1989, it did succeed in reducing the demand for ivory in Western countries, but not in Asia. This measure has grown increasingly controversial as southern African states with growing elephant populations and rampant poverty have sought revenues from their stockpiles of elephant ivory (mostly from natural deaths or conservation-minded culls) to plow back into conservation and rural development.
Of course, some revenues have also flowed into corruption, but corruption has also fueled the anti-trade policies of other African countries, most notably Kenya, whose position can be explained by its longstanding attempts to separate people and wildlife (a near-impossibility it the developing world), and, of course, the international aid money it receives for its anti-ivory stance.
Ironically, by succeeding in the West, the ivory ban failed in a different manner. CITES is based on the premise that destroying the economic value of species will aid in their survival. Despite much evidence to the contrary, NGOs, Kenya and wealthy Western countries like the U.S. and Europe have promoted this view. But nothing could be further from the truth, especially in the poor countries where many of the world's endangered species live. In developing countries, species who do not pay their way will be quickly replaced by something else that does, such as agricultural crops.
Even if CITES could succeed in destroying the positive value of elephants, then all that would be left would be their negative value. Poor Africans most often bear the brunt of Western conservation initiatives, which focus on protecting the elephants rather than elephant habitat, a far more important factor in ensuring elephant survival. Consequently, elephants are often viewed as a real nuisance to people, trampling crops and humans, knocking houses over, and generally wreaking havoc.
The idea that wildlife will be better off without any economic value may have some merit in a National Park setting, but on communal lands or on private property it has the opposite effect to the stated goal of species survival. This points to another fatal flaw of CITES. The best hope for the protection of wildlife, and especially endangered species, is the alleviation of poverty and the reform of domestic institutions that have encouraged poaching and habitat conversion — an area that CITES has no real jurisdiction over.
Some CITES officials have started to recognize the importance of making life better for both people and wildlife. "CITES seeks to promote a healthier and more sustainable relationship between people and wildlife," said CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers. Just how it will accomplish this is unclear, since CITES' trade bans will only succeed when there is a wall between people and wildlife.
A number of southern African countries have moved in recent years to tear down some of those walls by devolving control over wildlife to local, rural communities. The idea is to recognize that people will protect and conserve what they value. Despite corruption ranging on a scale from petty to Robert Mugabe, it has been a tremendous step in the right direction. Community conservation programs have led to fierce local protection of wildlife, and the view that wildlife habitat -has value far beyond simply being potential farmland.
While the move to support the limited sale of ivory is a welcome one, it remains to be seen whether there has really been any sea change in policy. After all, ivory imports into the United States will continue to be prohibited under both the Endangered Species Act and the African Elephant Conservation Act.
Still, the move could be the first step towards an acknowledgement that trade bans work to the detriment of elephants and other species, and that conservation based on incentives, decentralization, and ownership is better for both people and elephants.
Michael De Alessi is director of natural resource policy at Reason Foundation