Saving threatened habitats worldwide

What have the Vatican and CITES in common?

5 March, 2013 - 17:01 -- John Burton

To a certain extent this is a repeat of some of my earlier blogs, but while CITES is meeting in Bangkok, I feel it is worth revisiting the subject of bans.

The Vatican and CITES is a bizarre comparison perhaps, but both have tried to use bans as a way of changing behaviour.

For 2000 years or so the Vatican has tried to prevent homosexuality (and indeed all forms of sexual encounter outside marriage) with obvious failure.

CITES has tried to protect elephants and rhinos by banning the trade in ivory and horn, and has similarly dramatically failed. The longer the ban continues, the higher the price of the commodity, and the greater the incentive to break the law.

Just as a Scottish cardinal feels impelled to break the law because the rewards are apparently greater than the penalties (eternal damnation no less), so poachers and traders are prepared to flaunt the law, particularly when the financial rewards are even greater than for drug smuggling.

Banning drugs and prohibiting alcohol has never, ever worked. So why should anyone be so arrogant as to think they can make banning the trade in ivory work?

I am certainly not condoning the ivory trade in any way, but we have to face reality. Taxing the trade would at least provide revenue to police it more effectively. And burning stockpiles of ivory only serves to increase the value of what is left.

There is an apocryphal story of someone buying the second specimen of the rarest stamp in the world, and burning it simply to make his the rarest, and hence even more valuable. That is what is happening every time ivory is burned.

Having tried bans for a quarter of a century or more, perhaps it is time to try alternatives. Another alternative would be to increase the amount of fossil ivory available – there must be thousands of tonnes still in the taiga of Siberia.

Much as it grieves me, I feel compelled to admit that bans have clearly never worked, and are not likely to. We must find an alternative.


Submitted by John A Burton on

I was interested to get an email from Chris Packham yesterday, reinforcing what I have written.

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