Banning ivory won’t save any elephants

Barbara Amiel on the cold truth about banning and trashing ivory
African Elephant calf and mother, Kenya, Africa
James Gritz/Getty Images

Sometimes I wish I were the cold-hearted bitch I’m said to be. And in a sense, I am. Reason can make an icy roommate. Take the vanishing population of wild elephants. The heart bleeds at the sight of an infant elephant standing over the body of its beheaded mother, her hacked body now circled by vultures. Where the head should be, only a great gap of torn blood vessels and spongy flesh, looking like the stuffing a child might pull out of a doll. Buckets of water laced with cyanide placed in grazing grounds during the dry season are the bait and, in fact, the vultures will soon be dead too after eating the toxic carcass. Their death is deliberate collateral damage in elephant poaching: a cluster of vultures would alert rangers.

There are about 400,000 wild African elephants left. In 2012, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) estimated poachers murdered up to 22,000 and the figures for 2013 are said to be higher. An elephant has one baby every few years. Factor in natural deaths and do the math. I suppose it makes no difference to the equation that the elephant is listed among the most intelligent of animals. If this great pachyderm, the largest land creature on Earth, were only half as intelligent, the tragedy would be the same—except the realization that these animals understand death, have complex social relationships and grieve over each other’s lifeless bodies seems to make it all so much worse.

I thought banning the ivory trade would help end this horror show, that destroying stockpiles of ivory would incite shame in purchasers and devalue the commodity. But the cold truth is that banning and trashing ivory is not helping the situation, but making it worse. That bandwagon makes us feel moral but doesn’t do a bloody thing for those bloodied, mutilated bodies and their helpless infants.

There is a whiff of radical chic about the elephant crisis. Prince William reportedly wants Buckingham Palace to destroy the royal ivory collection. Smashing 1,711 exquisite objects is as senseless as decimating the antique obelisks in Rome on grounds they were made by slave labour. The problem can be resolved only by raising the value of live elephants rather than the tusks of dead ones.

Rationally, the more difficult it is to get ivory and the more scarce the elephant, the more status it possesses for the biggest customers of all, in newly rich China and in Japan. CITES banned international commercial trade in the organic mineral in 1989 but it is a bust in exterminating the ivory industry; perhaps it would be more effective regulating and managing it. This is not simply my view: It has been stated far more eloquently by advocates such as Daniel Stiles, a member of the IUCN/SSC African specialist group. Shame won’t affect ivory’s new poachers created by skyrocketing ivory prices. These are the ruthless gangs of organized crime who, unlike poachers of old, don’t take out an elephant or two, but kill a hundred or more at a time, transporting them through well-established criminal networks to the Far East. Ivory is a futures gamble: CITES sometimes approves limited sales of ivory, or the rules change and any freed ivory gets hoovered up by big speculators, including corrupt governments.

Last February, President Barack Obama banned sales of ivory in America. That should get a few antique dealers into prison. Try selling grandma’s piano with the ivory keys and you will be prosecuted for a class E felony with the onus on you to prove the ivory is more than 100 years old or imported before 1989. Last month, a Canadian string player studying in New York cancelled his audition in Winnipeg, fearing his bow with an ivory bridge would be confiscated on return to the States. He might have been able to get a certificate of registration, but customs officers are notoriously arbitrary in enforcement.

To the rural people of India, home of the Asian elephant, the elephant is not an icon but a large hairless rat that destroys crops and kills people. For them, the elephant has only negative economic value. They need compensation or a view of the elephant as an asset. As weak and corrupt African governments strengthen, they come to realize live elephants have significant tourist value. Perhaps elephants could be farmed and carefully culled for a sustainable ivory industry? Surely it’s more useful to spend money looking into that than catching tourists bringing back ivory bangles from Asian countries where it is legal to carve ivory but the supply is drying up.

I love elephants, have adopted two and support workers in the field such as Dame Daphne Sheldrick of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, labouring in Kenya to heal and rehabilitate orphaned elephants. But I hold certain principles dear, not simply for doctrinaire purposes. Governments can proscribe people’s activities and declare them illegal. Prohibition outlawed liquor and, in so doing, destroyed small shopkeepers and enabled organized crime; outlaw insider trading and then information—the natural commodity of the industry—becomes more precious and sought. Declare war on drugs and its funding buys guns for gangs while drug use prospers. Ban steroids for athletes, ban lascivious looks by men, ban politically incorrect words, but none of this works and the consequences are only an ever-narrowing circle of freedom in human affairs. I applaud the festivities on behalf of elephants and film stars speaking out on their plight. But we can’t shame the Japanese into buying wood hankos instead of prized ivory ones.

My heart wants to ban ivory and make an exception to principle for this wonderful beast, but many people have matters they feel should be exceptions. The rational consequences are best faced: Ban ivory, destroy stockpiles, and both freedom and elephants will disappear.