Conservationists have battled with the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife derivatives for around 50 years, and the situation is for most species at its worst ever.
In October Earthwatch held a debate about the trade in horn and ivory, and it is clear from accounts of the debate that many conservationists are opposed to any plan to introduce a carefully regulated trade in horn and ivory. My sense is that some of this opposition is due to the fact that there is not yet a workable alternative to the existing ban.
So, who exactly are the right people to work out an alternative to a ban? Quite possibly, conservationists are not the best people. Surely economists and commodity traders have more relevant experience than conservationists?
The fact is: ivory is traded as a commodity. While it has always had a value, in the past its value was related to its use, but this changed dramatically in 1972, when Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the Asians (mostly Gujaratis) out of Uganda, and ivory was used to transfer currency out of the country.
Today ivory is still stockpiled in China and other countries, as is rhino horn. Not all of either of these commodities ends up being manufactured, but a large (unknown) proportion is simply stockpiled. This means that for those holding the stockpiles there is an incentive to encourage further depletion of the remaining wild stocks, because it increases the value of the stocks they hold. Meanwhile, destroying the seized illegal supplies also increases the value of the stockpiles, and increases the value of further illegal supplies.
The issue is further confused by the fact that there is, and always will be very large quantities of perfectly legal ivory in circulation, and this too will help maintain the value of ivory.
Some extremists argue for a total ban on the trade in all forms of ivory, but to me that is quite unrealistic. In addition to extremely large quantities of mammoth ivory (relatively easily distinguished from modern elephants) there are also large quantities of walrus, hippo and sperm whale ivory, some of which comes from natural mortality (as did a proportion of elephant ivory in the past). And there is all the existing carved ivory – ranging from the magnificent altar pieces in the V&A Museum, to more commonplace chess sets. It would be both impractical and impossible to ban these.
There is no evidence that bans can ever be enforced, and in nearly every case bans simply increase the value of the banned substance – if there is a demand for it. Drugs are a prime example, despite billions of pounds and dollars being spent on enforcement.
Therefore a solution that works as an economic model has to be found. Cartels and monopolies spring to mind, but however I look at the problem, I still believe that commodity traders are more likely to have the answer than conservationists.
I raised this question with supporters of WLT who happen also to be commodity traders. Their suggestion was that arms traders, or diamond traders might have an even better insight! This seems an interesting route to investigate. (Many years ago, Kenyan elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton established a strong correlation between the rise in elephant poaching in Africa, and the increase in the availability of weapons capable of killing elephants in the post-colonial era.) Diamonds are also used as currency, smuggled, traded illegally and stockpiled just like ivory.
After 50 years of observation, I remain convinced that bans do not and will not work. The illegal trade in ivory and horn is having a devastating effect on the world’s dwindling populations of elephant and rhino, and now is the time to look to people outside the conservation sector to find a solution to this increasingly dire problem.
PS Following the success of World Land Trust (WLT)'s own debate Controversial Conservation last month, we are considering topics for future debates. I would be very interested to hear from anyone who would like to see any hotly contested conservation issues debated in public - including alternatives to the current wildlife trade ban.