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A few years ago I was stunned to hear scientists had proven dogs experienced emotion such as jealousy, happiness and sadness. I was on my sofa as the TV newsreader educated viewers with the latest research. Vishnu, our German Shepherd cross, lying at my feet, must have heard my sharp intake of breath. He sighed and stretched, unimpressed that his obvious boredom was now proven real.

Science sometimes needs time to figure out the obvious. Its relentless search to prove beyond doubt has, at times, caused irreparable harm. The best example is probably how the tobacco industry, faced with evidence of a correlation between smoking and cancer in the 1950s, used scientists to muddy the waters for fifty years. It wasn’t until 1999 the industry recognised smoking caused cancer. And here’s the semantics. Statisticians are trained to understand that a correlation does not imply a cause.

In the elephant debate, it is unlikely the species has time for science.

Young elephants © Dave Currey

After the CITES approved sale of ivory to Japan in 1999 it was decided to set up two programmes to help assess if this legal sale, or other CITES decisions, had an effect on elephant populations or illegal trade in ivory. They were called the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and the Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE).

To many of us who, undercover, had met countless ivory traders and poachers, it was already obvious CITES decisions had an effect. Traders explained how the industry adapted to take advantage of every international decision. In the 1980s huge sales of CITES approved stockpiled ivory had changed the entire ivory market, benefiting the criminal networks as they laundered poached ivory using “legal” CITES certificates. Using the massive profits gained from the sales, ivory barons invested in illegal activities across Africa, Asia and Europe pushing poaching levels to around 70,000 dead elephants each year. This is well documented.

ETIS and MIKE took many years to gain any data relevant to the discussion and started without a base. CITES member states often failed to input ivory seizures and information on elephant carcasses. ETIS is only based on seizure data which in itself cannot really show the actual illegal trade in ivory. Its model works with numbers of seizures as well as total weight of ivory seized and it is reported that the ETIS director, TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken, actually advised one Thai official to confiscate lots of small ivory items at a well-known Bangkok market to get his cases up.

After the 1999 ivory sale to Japan, China complained the sale had confused the Chinese public and been the main reason why they had experienced an upsurge in illegal ivory. Despite the evidence from Japanese and international NGOs of increased sales of illegal ivory in Japan, from his ETIS seizure data, Milliken assured CITES member states it had not increased illegal trade, although poaching levels had started to increase. He even suggested the proposed sale of ivory to China and Japan, which took place in 2008, could decrease the value of ivory and therefore decrease poaching. When supporting the sale he was certainly not shy of suggesting the CITES decision might have an effect.

On both counts he was tragically wrong. The price of ivory increased by 650% and poaching levels shot up across much of the African elephants’ range. In particular fragile populations in Central and West Africa have been hit hard. Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique immediately reported rampant poaching with Kenya the only country able to increase its enforcement and bring the poaching levels down. The massive elephant herds in Tanzania have been decimated and the recent Great Elephant Census has revealed that 30% of all savannah elephants died since 2007, the year CITES agreed the sale of ivory to Japan and China.

Within this wildlife tragedy it is often forgotten there has been a terrible loss of human life. Hundreds of rangers and poachers shot in a bush war. Communities have been overrun by criminal networks with weapons and fragile economies have been threatened by loss of income from tourism and a breakdown in governance.

In their reports to the CITES Conference now taking place in Johannesburg, the CITES programmes state that “…no causal connection can be established at present between PIKE[1] and any of its correlates identified thus far.” An independent paper written by Hsiang and Sekar published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2016 takes the opposite view finding the legal sale increased the black market and contributed to an increase in poaching. CITES has issued a rebuttal of these findings.

"Hope" poached at CITES most intensely monitored site, Samburu, Kenya 2011 © Dave Currey / EIA

A 2014 paper presented to the National Academy of Sciences of the USA by eminent scientists on the most intensely monitored elephant site (based on CITES carcass data) states “At the intensively monitored site, illegal killing increased markedly after 2008 and was correlated strongly with the local black market ivory price and increased seizures of ivory destined for China.”

So what do we know so far? The scientists don’t agree.

In 1989 when the first elephant crisis was in full swing the same organisations, countries and in some cases individuals (including TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken), stated publicly that a CITES Appendix 1 listing, banning international trade in elephant parts, would not be effective. Apparently, the poaching crisis was due to poor enforcement of regulations and corruption, not trade. Following the Appendix 1 listing agreed in 1989 the price of ivory dropped significantly along .with poaching levels.

CITES, with its twitter strap-line regulating the world's wildlife trade since 1975, must be ashamed of its record regarding African elephants. Since 1975 over a million elephants have been slaughtered. Since the 1980s it has applied regulations, except during the period of 1990 to 1999 when it banned all international trade. The 1990s, prior to the CITES approved sale in 1999 breaking the ban, was the only period poaching was at relatively low levels and elephant populations had a chance to recover.

CITES, through ETIS and MIKE are currently stating there are many factors affecting the poaching including poor enforcement and corruption. I can’t argue with that – of course, as well as poverty, availability of arms, positioning of criminal networks, densities of elephants, attitudes of communities and many other factors. But it is driven by demand which was stimulated by legal trade. It was CITES that sanctioned two so called “one-off” sales which provided widespread cover for the laundering of poached ivory. It’s so plainly obvious the scientists will probably be able to argue their points for decades to come.

So when the pro-trade countries of southern Africa and Asia team up with CITES, TRAFFIC and WWF to say there is no proof of any causal effect of legal ivory sales resulting in increased poaching they are almost certainly correct. This is because the processes set up to scientifically prove causal effect are unable to do this. Especially since the data they are provided (or not provided) often comes from countries with their own politically charged environment. The brief is impossible and the “no proof of…” statement is inevitable. There is equally no proof there is not a causal effect.

The position of WWF is particularly disingenuous. It has used clever public relations language in its fundraising literature about their opposition to the “illegal” ivory trade (really?). I know many who work for WWF are equally disenchanted by their elephant position and some have felt pressure from the international organisation if they dared to suggest the ivory trade should be closed down.

WWF’s position has been confused. In 2014 its spokesperson admitted the ivory sale in 2008 “didn’t work out the way we at WWF expected” because it encouraged the laundering of illegal ivory into China. Then in its CITES Conference briefing paper it denies any connection between the sale and poaching. In a BBC interview in April 2012 Tom Milliken (TRAFFIC is a project of WWF) said “Did allowance of legal ivory to go into China exacerbate a situation? One could probably argue now, with hindsight, that indeed it did. It created perhaps an image in the minds of many potential Chinese consumers that it was OK to buy ivory.”

I don’t subscribe to a view that “experts” don’t matter, but when they are inconsistent, pursue goals they can’t achieve and increasingly appear partisan, I’m going to rely on the blatantly obvious.

End all ivory trade, international and domestic, forever, now. Give the elephants a chance.

Now Vishnu is wagging his tail. I can’t be certain the cause is he thinks the ivory trade is finished or it’s just dinner time. But I know for sure he’s happy.


[1] MIKE monitors relative poaching levels using the Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants (PIKE), which is calculated as the number of illegally killed elephants found divided by the total number of elephant carcasses encountered by patrols or other means (e.g. community reports, researchers, etc), aggregated by year for each site.

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