photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service
Today ivory sells on the black market for about $1500US per pound. Al-Shabab, a Somali splinter cell of al Qaida, raises $600,000 per month from poaching activities. Local African warlords and international crime syndicates fund their own violent and illegal activities through ivory poaching. Any reduction in the supply of legal ivory to growing middle class markets in China will skyrocket prices for illegal supplies, with profit margins for terrorist groups, warlords and criminals escalating correspondingly.
Recently the Obama administration announced that US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) would promulgate a rule that would ban ivory sales in the United States. Government agencies around the world have postured with high profile ivory crushes and burns from China to the United States and Kenya. Even Prince William wants to crush the Royal ivory collection in the UK. This week the Administrations’ Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking will meet to discuss their strategy to enact a rule ending legal trade in the US. But will destroying stockpiles of ivory and criminalizing legal trade really stop ivory poaching in Africa? There is no evidence to support that belief.
“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” ~Thomas Sowell
While seemingly noble, these measures are largely symbolic and are likely to drive the price of ivory up by creating scarcity. Markets are driven by supply and demand. When the supply is reduced and the demand continues or increases, prices move up. Even the perception of scarcity puts upward pressure on markets. This is all Economics 101, and it applies equally to legal and illegal markets.
The face of ivory poaching in Africa
Propaganda in support of the ivory crush theory suggests that eliminating the world’s stock piles of ivory and criminalizing legal trade works to discourage black-market trade; that somehow legal trade provides cover for illegal trade. The opposite effect is far more likely. Without a significant decrease in the demand for ivory, scarcity, even perceived scarcity, will likely drive the price for illicit ivory to all time highs. Black-market trade will become more lucrative than ever. Criminals will be emboldened by the world’s inability to protect elephants in Africa, nor implement a workable strategy to reduce demand in ivory markets.
Instead of crushing valuable stockpiles of ivory in a grand symbolic gesture, sell the ivory in legal markets and use the money for elephant conservation. This is not about writing symbolic checks that are the fodder of photo ops and behind the scenes corruption– but about putting beans and bullets directly on the ground to be used by the rangers who need them. We should use money from legal ivory sales for the recruitment and training of additional personnel, outfit them with the equipment they need, and deploy them to fight sophisticated poaching rings. Crushing ivory out of existence only increases it’s value on the black market.
Ivory poaching is funding international terrorism. Making it more difficult and more dangerous to kill elephants, while educating the Chinese to the realities of ivory trade, will mitigate the flow of money from ivory to terrorist activities.
Al-Shabab makes $600,000 per month on poaching and employs child soldiers
Money from legal ivory sales could fund educational programs targeting the Chinese middle class.
Making legal trade illegal and turning good citizens into criminals will make it easier for FWS to make cases against Americans here at home, but it fails to address the hard work of catching poachers and real criminals that are determined to kill every living elephant.
We should utilize the groups that have the most at stake in elephant conservation. Hunting groups, gun and equipment manufacturers, and NGO’s. They all need to step up to the plate and play a larger role in preservation of the species they value. Protecting elephants as a resource that will be available for future generations should be a common goal of all of these interest groups. The focus needs to be on leveraging relationships on the ground in Africa, and empowering small specialized projects that get equipment, supplies, manpower and training where they are needed most. We should be using the legal sale of confiscated ivory to fund putting boots on the ground to undercut poaching.
Additionally, a larger effort needs to go into educating middle class ivory consumers in China. Again, NGO’s funded in part by legal sales of ivory could create a model for education– essentially an “issue campaign” to change the hearts and minds that currently have such an appetite for ivory and a steadfast superstition that tusks grow like human fingernails.
If we insist on going down the primrose path of symbolic conservation gestures that actually aggravate the situation, while wasting what could be irreplaceable conservation dollars from ivory stockpiles, we fail. We will never address the fundamentals of supply and demand. Our current course will make it so lucrative and easy for criminals and terrorists to continue their activities that elephant populations could be pushed to the brink.
Funding for elephant conservation is limited. Criminalizing legal trade of ivory at home is foolish, ineffective and distracts from actual conservation. We are running out of time for the usual tortured process of political posturing and the stroking of egos. We need to get resources on the ground and limit markets in short order. Elephants died for the ivory being crushed. Should their deaths be for naught? Use the money from legal sales of ivory to protect the future of elephants for generations to come. Stop the ivory crush.
The ivory crush and other wildlife issues are highly charged and contentious. I specialize in working with clients to employ campaign style tactics to change hearts and minds on vital issues in the wildlife sector. Please follow The Last Word for insight and analysis particular to the 21st century wildlife sector. If you would like to discuss the potential advantages of running a targeted issue campaign, and/or a comprehensive government affairs strategy, please call or email me. ~ Andrew Wyatt