As reported in the NY Times and elsewhere, an auction of 108 metric tons of ivory took place today in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The buyers were exclusively from China and Japan. Not surprisingly, this sale has raised the ire of animal welfare groups, such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
You might be surprised to learn however that this was a legal auction sanctioned, and in fact run, by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. So here are the facts:
* All of the ivory sold comes from government stockpiles compiled from elephants that died of natural causes and culled elephants from overpopulated areas (a controversy in itself).
* All revenues “must be used exclusively for elephant conservation and community development programs within or adjacent to the elephant range.”
* This is the first such legal sale since 1989 and the moratorium will be reimposed until 2017.
(For my take on this issue, read below the fold. This post is dryer than our usual fare…)
The IFAW’s main objections as represented by their Program Director, Michael Wamithi, in their press release are as follows:
#1 “Even though the ivory was not obtained through illegal poaching activities, these legal sales only encourage poachers to launder their illegal stocks”
#2 “We have no doubt that flooding the market with over 100 tons of ivory will put this endangered species in even further jeopardy.Throughout west and central Africa, isolated populations have actually been wiped out completely due to illegal hunting. If we do not take this trade seriously, we will surely continue see the demise of these majestic creatures – and sooner rather than later.”
#3 “The international trade in ivory simply cannot be justified by a perceived short-term gain such as profits from these sales. Not only are elephants a keystone species, but African tourism relies on their existence. To toy with that is to toy with the livelihoods of the citizens within these poor African nations.”
I am not an economist nor am I an expert in elephant conservation. That being said, the Program Director for the IFAW offers no research to support his claims. It may indeed exist, and I have emailed the IFAW to explain the basis for these statements (see response in Comments). However, at this time I have trouble understanding his rationale.
Point by point:
#1 These legal sales only encourage poachers to launder their illegal stocks – As all revenues (as opposed to simply profits) are to be used for elephant conservation and community development around elephant populations, there is no new incentive to launder illegal ivory.
#2 We have no doubt that flooding the market with over 100 tons of ivory will put this endangered species in even further jeopardy. – A legal auction flooding the market with 108 tons of ivory should reduce the price of ivory worldwide, thereby disincenting poachers with reduced profits.
#3 The international trade in ivory simply cannot be justified by a perceived short-term gain such as profits from these sales. – I can’t refute this. That being said, CITES is taking a pragmatic approach to a complex problem. What’s more, CITES’ mandate is “not to inhibit trade, but to facilitate regulated trade in endangered species at sustainable levels.”
However distasteful in concept, it seems pretty reasonable to me in practice. What are your thoughts?