“It’s just sitting there, worth a fortune” explained a frustrated and committed wildlife warden in South Africa. We were sharing a beer around a fire, the cool night air providing a celestial display only seen in the bush. “Our work is starved of funds. Sell the ivory and we can use it for conservation.” It was the 1990s.
Across the border in south-eastern Zimbabwe we visited a wildlife conservancy, restored from a cattle ranch where a bore-hole and water pump had recently been installed for the local community. I was told a few elephants were hunted each year by rich Americans and Europeans who funded the community and restoration project with their fees. “We need trade. They have to be able to take their trophies home.”
The southern African nations (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana) have never agreed with the ivory ban arguing that consumptive (killing) sustainable use was necessary to make wildlife pay. They have been supported by WWF and its trade monitoring arm Traffic as long as I can remember. If you’re surprised to hear WWF supports some ivory trade that’s because they don’t boast of this with their US$144 million worldwide fundraising expendituredespite over half their US$1,071 million worldwide income (2014) coming from animal loving supporters.
Overseeing the elephant disaster is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the agreement between 181 governments to ensure international trade does not threaten wild species. Its elephant decisions are advised by two projects set up to answer questions regarding elephant poaching and the ivory trade. Both projects rely on data supplied mainly from national governments and both projects suffer from incomplete data because many countries don’t report. The CITES ivory trade project is run by Traffic, WWF’s monitoring arm, from pro-trade Zimbabwe by a long time proponent of ivory trade, Tom Milliken.
The cause of the current elephant slaughter, perhaps the most serious conservation disaster of this decade, was a decision made in 2008 as the forces of the pro trade lobby came together to support China as a buyer of stockpiled ivory.
So much for expert advice. The recommendation to allow the experiment was made by a CITES Secretariat that, even years later, struggles to understand the ivory trade. Its main advisor needs “hindsight” to see what had been obvious for years: Legal ivory acts as a laundering mechanism for illegal ivory into an internationally authorised consumer market.
I wish I was back in South Africa sitting around a fire with the committed but underfunded wildlife warden now facing increased poaching pressure. I would reassure him that he didn’t need to sell ivory because people all over the world want to help. As proof I would tell him WWF now raises over one billion dollars a year, more than half from animal lovers.
Crazy idea I know – but perhaps his team should get some of that.
In a few days time - Part 3. Thailand, a new ivory laundry?