Save the Elephants by Meg Riley

Four hundred elephant carcasses: that is what was found in Cameroon a week ago. Despite the many organizations that are trying to save elephants, poaching is persevering.  For poachers, it makes sense to kill the elephants so they can sell the ivory, but why do the governments in these countries allow the poachers to take away a source of their income? The loss in elephant populations in the last few decades has been extreme, as shown by a minimum of a 50% decline in elephant populations in central and western African in just the last decade (Bouche). Something needs to be done to stop the killing of elephants, as well as to increase populations to a sustainable number. The upcoming Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference is the key to saving the elephants and a viable plan needs to be decided on and put in action. In order for the plan to work, there has to be incentives for poachers to stop killing elephants and for governments to put forth effort and use resources to conserve elephants.

Human populations in Africa have been growing rapidly, and much land that used to be elephants’ migratory grounds have become agro-pastoral grounds. Elephant ranging lands are now at 5% of what they were in 1950 (Bouche). Human populations isolate elephant populations and make it hard for herds to migrate from one area to another. This causes populations to be smaller, and it is hard for these populations to increase to a stable number of elephants. Many populations are at 200 or less, a size at which research shows are generally extirpated within a decade (Bouche).  In Central Africa, there has been a minimum decline of 76% in elephants since the late 1980s, in western Africa a decline of 37%, and in eastern and southern Africa a stable or slight increase in populations (Bouche). “As these [central and western African] populations collapsed, the number of recorded carcasses exceeds the number of live elephants” (Bouche), showing how large a factor poaching is on depletion. The most important causes of the decline of elephant populations are poaching and loss of habitat.

The sharp decline in elephant populations became a focus in the 1970s and 1980s. African elephants were listed on Appendix I of CITES in 1973, meaning that African elephants are “threatened with extinction and are, or may be, affected by trade” (CITES). CITES placed a ban on international trade of African elephant ivory. This ban is the center of a debate between central and western Africa and eastern and southern Africa. Central and western African want to keep the ban in place, whereas eastern and southern Africa want it slightly eased. Eastern and southern Africa governments say they have an unmanageable number of elephants and ivory and that the profits from ivory sales go back into conservation. Central and western Africa governments believe that any legalized trade will raise demand and therefore poaching to supply the new demand. CITES also mandated the monitoring of illegal trade and killing of elephants and created The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) to do surveys. ETIS and MIKE have recorded some declines in ivory trade and poaching, but not enough to say the CITES ban was completely successful. In some countries, such as the Cote d’Ivoire there has even been an increase in the ivory market (Stiles 311).  Despite all effort, the poaching and decline in elephant population issues have not been resolved.

Most important to keeping poachers in line and conserving elephant population is government commitment, from both the African governments and the governments of countries with large ivory markets, such as China, United States, and Japan. The main reason the trade ban has not been effective, is that regulations have not been enforced. Western African countries with the sharpest decline of elephants “collectively reported only 30 ivory seizures inside their borders in the past 21 years. At the same time, 28 tonnes of illegal ivory from these countries has turned up in more than 1350 seizures in other parts of the world” (Milliken). Central African countries had similar numbers reporting, “only 90 seizures at home since 1989, but with over 900 seizures of the ivory have occurred further afield” (Milliken). The lack of seizures in comparison to the amount of illegal ivory sold displays minimal effort to stop poaching and protect elephants. Because the likelihood of being caught selling illegal ivory is so low, poachers are encouraged to continue killing. “In sharp contrast the 17 countries of eastern and southern Africa have collectively made of 3300 ivory seizures themselves, 1000 more than were made elsewhere involving ivory from those countries” (Milliken).  In the countries that have stable elephant populations, the governments are active in cracking down on illegal sales of ivory. There is a direct correlation between government enforcement within borders and elephant population stability. Domestic trade of poached ivory has to be illegal, not just international trade. In order to regulate ivory markets within a country, the government has to be willing to allocate some of their valuable resources to the cause. This spending should be viewed as an investment. Elephants are an integral part of the African experience that tourists want to see. Tourism is a major source of income for African countries, and if there are little to no elephants, the number of tourists will drop drastically. Allowing illegal ivory sales only hurts the government.  Because the sales are done underground, the government gets none of the money made from selling ivory that is technically theirs (Stiles). So by being lax with regulations, governments are hurting themselves, since they do not get any money from sales, and they have fewer elephants to draw tourists and game hunters. On the other hand, governments of countries buying the ivory need to crack down as well. Without such a high demand for ivory, there would be no need for poaching to occur. China has the largest ivory demand, and the United States is second. A survey of United States ivory imports found that, “masses of ivory from poached elephants are entering the United States illegally” (Hearn 1). Most buyers “obtain illegal ivory from China – the main source of worked ivory in the US” (Hearn 1). This market fuels the Chinese market which fuels the poaching, and none of these governments are stopping it. ETIS has named both America and China as ivory trade problem countries. Both of these governments, in particular need to stop ivory trade in order for any plan to be effective, because as long as there is a demand, there will be someone willing to supply.

Once governments commit to conservation, the next step is to convince poachers that it is in their best interest to stop killing. The obvious way to deter poachers is to impose strict consequences, such as high fines and jail time. The governments should also enact severe penalties to sellers of poached ivory within domestic markets. As long as the governments truly commit to enforcement of these laws, sellers would be afraid to sell ivory. If sellers are not willing to vend ivory for fear of punishment, they will not want to buy ivory from which they will not profit. Then, the poachers who are willing to risk being caught selling ivory will have limited options, because few sellers will stay in the business. If countries with high demands start enforcing their laws, then demand will decrease, requiring supply to decrease. The sellers of ivory will have fewer people to sell to and a higher risk of doing business, from governments abroad as well as their own government.

After working toward managing the ivory trade, connecting elephant populations is the most important task. “Maintaining contact is particularly critical to the long term viability of remaining small [elephant] populations that may not be viable in isolations” (Bouche). One way governments can achieve this is through the development of corridors elephants can use to migrate from one protected area to another. (Bouche) Farmers would have to give up some of their farmland to build such corridors and they would need an incentive to do so and not to reclaim the land once it has been converted. One incentive that governments can publicize is with elephant corridors built and clearly delineated protected areas for elephants, the elephants will not need to trample through farmland and will destroy fewer crops. This will actually save farmers money in the long run, because crops will be more successful without the losses caused by elephants.

In order to protect the elephants, governments have to put forth a concerted effort as well as use many resources without getting direct profits in return, except for some from tourism and game hunting. CITES can help the governments by giving them incentives to stop poaching by legalizing very specific international ivory trade. Only countries successfully administering enforcement, such as countries in eastern and southern Africa, should be allowed to trade ivory. Legal ivory trade would be from stockpiles, culled elephants, and the natural deaths of elephants. This will allow governments to make money from their elephants, and then to use this money for elephant conservation. As it is, there is little to no motivation for countries to actively stop poaching and to protect elephants. Because the illegal ivory reduces tax revenue as well as sales, governments will want to crack down on the trade in their own interest. This increased enforcement, along with limited legalization, will keep people from buying poached ivory, since they can safely buy legal ivory. (Stiles 314) Another reason to legalize select international trade is that “wildlife competes with agricultural as primary land use, therefore it must provide economic value as an incentive for people not to convert wild habitats to farmland” (Stiles 314). To convince people and governments to do all they can to save the elephants, there must be some enticement to keep them from doing what they perceive as their only way to make money. There is a lot of incentive for governments to participate in legalized trade of ivory, and these incentives lead to government enforced trade regulations. If CITES maintains that only countries that already successfully manage the illegal ivory trade within their countries  can partake in legal trade, another enticement  is added. Countries will want to spend resources to stop poaching, in order to be able to trade, and then once they can trade, they will want to continue to stop poaching in order to increase profits.

Legalizing trade will also increase the incentives for poachers and sellers to stop poaching and selling illegal ivory. Most poachers kill elephants because they live in poverty and need a means to survive. When the governments start enforcing their laws, the poachers may be deterred for a while, but the need for money and food, will bring them back to poaching despite the risks. The poachers need an alternative option to support themselves and their families that is not illegal or harmful to elephants. One alternative is for the government to employ them to harvest the ivory of culled elephants and of elephants that died of natural causes. They should still be monitored to make sure they do not kill extra elephants, but to continue poaching would jeopardize the poachers’ new jobs and futures out of jail. If trade was legalized, the sellers would now have a legal option for selling ivory, and would not have to worry about punishment, while still making money. A small legalized trade offers all stakeholders incentives to help the elephants.

Elephants are in danger because of habitat reduction and poaching. Poachers and farmers will not stop what they are doing, because most of them have limited resources and means at their disposal. The elephants have no worth to the farmers and only the elephants’ ivory has worth to the poachers, so the only way to stop them would be to make the risks so large that the benefits are not worth it. In order to do this, governments have to be proactive in enforcing regulations. For governments to want to enforce regulations, they have to have some enticement, so they are not just spending money on projects with no return.  Strictly regulated legalized ivory trade will give governments the necessary inducements to crack down on poachers and to protect the elephants’ habitats.

Works Cited

CITES. 2012. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. 27 Feb. 2012. Web.

Bouche, Philipe, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, et al. “Will Elephants Soon Disappear From West African Savannahs?.” plosone. (2011): n. page. Web. 27 Feb. 2012.

Hearn, Kelly. “U.S. One of the Largest Ivory Markets, Survey Says.” National Geographic. 5 May 2008: n. page. Web. 27 Feb. 2012.

Milliken, Tom. “The Elephant In The Room.” New Scientist 205.2751 (2010): 24-25. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 Feb. 2012.

Stiles, Daniel. “The Ivory Trade and Elephant Conservation.”Environmental Conservation. 31.4 (2004): 309-321. Web. 27 Feb. 2012.