Lifting the Ivory Ban Called Premature Scientists React to Idea of Ending Ivory Ban
NPR logo Lifting the Ivory Ban Called Premature

Lifting the Ivory Ban Called Premature

Scientists Offer a Perspective on Elephants and Ivory

Several African countries want an international ban on the ivory trade lifted. Conservationists say wild elephant populations are still too vulnerable, and harvesting ivory is inhumane. John Lovett, World Wildlife Fund hide caption

toggle caption
John Lovett, World Wildlife Fund

This opinion piece was written for NPR by six scientists concerning efforts to lift the international ban on the ivory trade.

The fate of the elephant is once again in question. In early November, delegates from 160 member nations will convene in Chile for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to decide whether to ban, restrict or encourage trade in certain plant and animal products. The issue of trade in elephant ivory is once again on the agenda.

Pro-trade proposals come from five neighboring countries — Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Together they seek to sell 87 tons of stockpiled elephant ivory to international markets, with subsequent annual quotas totaling 13 tons. (100 tons of ivory represents roughly 5,700 elephants, based on a measure of average tusk weight presented in the South African proposal.) In an opposing proposal, India and Kenya seek to tighten the existing ivory ban by returning elephants to the most protected CITES status (Appendix I). We are six elephant biologists who have collectively worked for more than 125 years throughout the African and Indian elephant range to document the lives, status and behaviors of elephants. In this editorial, we will explain the basis for our position in favor of the Indian/Kenyan proposal.

The southern African proposals are modeled on a prototype that has no match. The prototype is South Africa, a prosperous country with a long history of controlled wildlife management and 90 percent of its elephants living in a single national park. That park, Kruger, was entirely fenced from 1978 until 1994, and adequately staffed to prevent poaching. Between 1967 and 1995, Kruger's elephant numbers were regulated through culls (14,562 animals), and the live export of juveniles (1,228 animals). In a wildlife-processing factory, workers removed ivory and hides from culled elephants; these were sold in the international market, while the meat was boiled and tinned for local consumption. In this way elephant management became self-sustaining for more than a decade in Kruger's fenced and guarded environment.

But most of the world's elephants live in unfenced, poorly guarded habitats. Even as the world ivory market was supporting the South African experiment, it also provided the impetus for the poaching and illegal exportation of vast quantities of ivory from other countries. Within a single decade, Africa's total elephant population was reduced by more than 50 percent, from an estimated 1,300,000 to 600,000. The primary cause was poaching. East Africa was hardest hit, with Kenya's elephants reduced by 80 percent, and Uganda's and Sudan's by 90 percent. India experienced a serious increase in poaching during the same period. Almost unanimously, the CITES' member nations decided to ban all international trade in ivory in 1989. This was not a decision to punish the southern African countries. It was a decision to save the elephants in the rest of the world from extinction. The plan worked. Almost immediately the price of ivory drastically dropped and within a few years the illegal trade ring had lost its energy and the massive wave of poaching had stopped.

Since 1989 there have been many efforts on the part of foreign governments and international conservation groups to increase the ability of poor countries to protect their elephants. But the illegal killing of elephants is still there, and 2002 is no time to increase the rewards for poaching. We say this with particular emphasis in the light of a new finding regarding the genetic relatedness of existing elephant populations. There is now compelling evidence that about a third of all African elephants belong to a newly defined species, Loxodonta cyclotis. These elephants live in the rainforests of central (and possibly west) Africa.

Unfortunately, most of the cyclotis habitat lies within nations that are plagued by poverty and civil unrest. Such wildlife protection laws as exist are poorly enforced or undermined by local corruption — there are areas, for example, in which the officials responsible for anti-poaching are sponsoring the poaching. Meanwhile, new logging roads are bringing outsiders and loggers into remote areas, and forest elephants are being killed for bushmeat as well as ivory. In some Congo basin forests, poaching kills up to 10 percent of the elephant population annually. The situation would quickly worsen if the incentive for poaching increased by the appearance of an outlet for ivory more lucrative than the present black market. Already, the "hard" ivory of cyclotis fetches a higher price in the growing markets of the Far East than "softer" ivory from African savanna elephants.

Asian elephants are the most endangered of all. They number only 38,000 to 50,000, and, of all ivory, that from Asian elephants is the most valuable in the Far East markets. In Asia, elephant populations are especially vulnerable, as only the males have tusks. There, selective poaching of males has led to a dramatic skew in the sex ratio. There is, for example, only one male for every 100 females in the Periyar Tiger Reserve of south India.

Given these conditions, legal trade in ivory would disproportionately threaten both African forest elephants and Asian elephants.

In closing we will say a few words from our collective field experience. Elephants in the three species are quite similar. Their intelligence shows up in a number of dimensions but particularly in their social behavior. There we find evidence of memory and compassion to an extent equaled only in a few primates, and best known in humans. Although their bodies and their social groups are large, individual elephants are vulnerable in the face of predation because of their attachments to one another. They are complex and variable and fascinating not only as societies but also as individuals. Decades of observation by dedicated elephant biologists, including the co-signers of this editorial, have led us all to the conclusion that we are far from understanding the whole story, and that what lies ahead will be worth every hour of waiting, and every dollar spent on careful conservation.

Respectfully submitted,

Katy Payne, Cornell University

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Save the Elephants

Vivek Menon, Wildlife Trust of India

Cynthia Moss, Amboseli Elephant Research Project

Joyce Poole, Savanna Elephant Vocalization Project

Andrea Turkalo, Wildlife Conservation Society