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The cruel death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe is no accident. Hunting associations may be calling for prosecutions, but that’s not because this is a one-off case. It’s because they’ve been caught. According to the Guardian an Oxford University study was looking “into the impact of sports hunting on lions living in the safari area surrounding the national park. The research found that 34 of 62 tagged lions died during the study period. 24 were shot by sport hunters. Sport hunters in the safari areas surrounding the park killed 72% of tagged adult males from the study area.”

Young elephant mourning at a matriarch's poached carcass, Kenya 2011 Photo: Dave Currey / EIA

Zimbabwe, along with South Africa, Namibia and Botswana have been leading a southern African policy of “use it or lose it” for decades. They argue that unless wildlife has a money value (by killing it) the local communities will not tolerate wildlife on their doorstep. There have been some well publicised success stories where the lives of a few elephants, paid for and shot by wealthy sport hunters, have convinced communities to return their cattle areas to wildlife. Schools have been built and water pumps installed. On the advice of highly paid US and European public relations companies journalists have been flown out to witness this pragmatic miracle. This policy has riddled the debate over international trade in wildlife for four decades with the world’s largest conservation group WWF trumpeting “use it or lose it” at many international fora. Unsurprisingly their support of some trade in ivory has been less publicised in their fundraising literature. The cost of these few success stories to our natural world and the brave Africans protecting their wildlife has been immense. The frontline battleground to push this policy has always been the trade in ivory. The southern African countries opposed the ivory ban in 1989 and have successfully weakened it ever since. When the ban came into force in 1990 the bottom fell out of the ivory trade. Prices plummeted, poaching virtually stopped in some areas and fragile elephant populations started a slow recovery. Having been undercover on ivory investigations for years I understand the mechanisms used to smuggle poached ivory. Throughout the 80s it was the “legal” sanctioned sales of ivory stockpiles that provided endless cover for poached ivory. The relentless experiment to prove that consumptive sustainable use is viable would cost the lives of around 800,000 elephants in that period. So it was with absolute horror I saw the same countries led by the same people pushing for ivory stockpile sales in 2008. As if suffering from some short-term memory loss 108 tonnes of ivory was sanctioned to be sold “legally” from those same countries undermining the ivory ban for so many years. One of the sanctioned buyers – the world's fastest growing consumer state, China. As predicted, since 2009 poaching has tragically hit the headlines again with some estimates that 35,000 elephants are now slaughtered by armed gangs annually. It is clear that much of the ivory from these elephants is on sale in China, laundered through the permits from the sanctioned 2008 stockpiles. Cecil was killed by a wealthy dentist in a country that has promoted killing animals for decades. It is high time the decision makers in governments around the world learned from history instead of trying to reinvent a horrendously failed policy. In my view the only way to halt the demise of the elephant is for a total international ban on all ivory sales backed up by a total domestic ban in China and all other countries. This will give enforcement agencies a chance to crack down, as they did after the 1989 ivory ban. Then it’s time for the world to recognise the huge cost of this failed “use it or lose it” policy and put it in the bin forever.

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