Why the Trade in Ivory Must Be Banned

01/31/2013 12:55 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2013

"Elephant family killed" -- such headlines are becoming depressingly regular. The global moratorium on the trade of ivory in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was supposed to protect elephants from further devastation, after their numbers in Africa were reduced from five million in the 1930s to just 690,000 in the 1980s. Indeed, for a while the ban succeeded, with the price of ivory crashing and elephants granted a reprieve. But within the last decade the numbers being poached have rocketed. In 2011 alone over 25,000 elephants were slaughtered, CITES calculates. Their Asian cousins face a similar threat. If the trend of recent years continues, elephants might cease to exist within the next few decades.

While the ivory trade suffered under the 1989 ban, it survived through concessions by CITES, with ivory obtained 'pre-ban' remaining legal. Sell-offs of ivory harvested from culls have also been permitted by CITES sporadically. But the recent sharp rise in both elephant killings and seizures of illegal ivory, with an unprecedented 38.8 tonnes of it seized in 2011 in total, point to the phenomenal comeback of a trade unsatisfied by legal ivory.

The cost of the trade is terrible. Scientific research and anecdotal evidence from people who have spent their lives living with and studying elephants have painted a picture of a creature that is as extraordinarily complex as humans themselves. Elephants are already known for 'mourning' their dead; but the people who know them intimately speak of an intuition bordering on prescience, and a capacity for emotion as great as our own. What then must go through the mind of a young elephant which witnesses its mother or its whole family gunned down and hacked to pieces? Daphne Sheldrick, who runs the Nairobi Elephant Orphanage, has a very good idea; she has had to watch many calves starve themselves to death in their grief.

There is a human cost to the illegal trade too. In the high-stakes war of ivory, poachers shoot and kill dozens of park rangers each year, and the rangers return in kind. In another worrying development, The New York Times recently reported that armed groups in Africa were hunting down elephants and selling the ivory to buy weapons. The ivory trade is helping to perpetuate human misery on the African continent.

To understand the resurgence of the trade, one should look to rise of China's economy. As CITES and many others have pointed out, it corresponds closely with poaching trends and the inflation of ivory's value, the latter having doubled in just six years between 2004 and 2010 to $700 per kilo. Most ivory, legal and illegal, ends up in China. The Chinese have long prized ivory, as a means of displaying wealth and to curry favor among business associates. While some ivory originates from culls or is genuinely antique, the sheer number of elephants being poached shows that legal sources of ivory cannot satisfy consumers' appetites. Since the economic ascent of China does not look likely to falter anytime soon, there is only one way to save elephants from extinction by poaching: a complete and permanent global ban on the trade of ivory.

CITES undermined the 1989 moratorium by allowing the trade in pre-ban ivory to continue and later by approving sell-offs of ivory harvested from culls. The existence of a legal ivory market has created opportunity for its illegal counterpart, with smugglers taking advantage of consumers' inability to recognize what is not illegal, and the desire for cheaper ivory. Yet the moratorium did achieve real change for a time, if the brief stabilization of elephant numbers in the 1990s is anything to go by. But ivory stock sell-offs cause consumers to think that the trade is 'open for business' and so fuel appetite, the Environmental Investigation Agency argues. This makes a dangerous combination with China's growing affluence. Thus a new, no-exceptions ban would be vital to ensuring a robust solution to the problem of ivory.

Education will be needed alongside a ban, to impress on consumers the human and animal cost of the ivory trade. According to a recent survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, 70 percent of Chinese consumers sampled thought that tusks fall off living elephants naturally. But education alone will not save elephants. The Tusk Trust has said that China already has the wealth to buy the tusks of every elephant (and the horn of every rhino) on the planet. Time is running out.