Save Elephants–Buy Ivory

This message has been muffled for quite sometime, but it was trumpeted loud and clear at the close of the 10th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Harare.

The decisive moment came on June 19 when proposals by Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe for a limited resumption of the ivory trade passed with the required two-thirds majority, despite strong opposition from the U.S. and some European delegations. With the tally of the last vote, many Africans in the auditorium broke into song, while dejected animal rights advocates tried to come to terms with a rare CITES defeat.

They had better get used to it. This vote is just the beginning of a sea change in the way that the developed world manages its resources.

For the first time in recent CITES memory, countries like the U.S. and the United Kingdom and their shrill, preservationist allies did not carry the day. These countries were influential in the 1989 CITES decision to ban the ivory trade. They claimed that devaluing elephants was the way to save them and promised to make up lost revenues with donor aid. But over the last eight years, many countries, particularly developing nations, have come to understand the insidious nature of these protectionist approaches to conservation.

Delegates from some these countries expressed their concerns on the floor of the meeting that these measures were simply attempts to turn their countries into "natural history museums" for wealthy environmentalists and that foreign aid only served to keep them "poor and mendicant."

The greatest threats to elephants is habitat loss. Making them less valuable may discourage some poaching, but by encouraging habitat destruction, this devaluation has surely harmed elephant populations. Countries like Zimbabwe with its CAMPFIRE program are realizing that the greatest incentive to protect habitat comes from allowing local people to benefit from the wildlife that surrounds them. In this case, devaluing elephants only means less effort will be put into providing space for them.

The resulting vote on a limited trade in ivory is indicative of a dramatic shift taking place on the international conservation scene. The consensus on wildlife conservation is shifting, and developing countries are finally beginning to work together to push for sustainable utilization of wildlife resources to both benefit and empower impoverished communities and nations.

Of course, CITES still has a long way to go. Norway proposed trade in its minke whale stocks, Cuba in hawksbill sea turtles, and Japan in both minke and gray whale populations. Each failed, in spite of evidence that none of these species are endangered. The Norwegian and Cuban proposals came close — majority support, but not the required two-thirds. But for these species, the political machinations of countries like the U.S. and the U.K. were more successful.

U.S. animosity toward Cuba is well known, and the whale proposals were likely scuttled by the advice of the International whaling Commission (IWC), which is today almost wholly divorced from conservation. The IWC routinely ignores its own rigorous scientific assessments. Member countries like the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand have publicly stated that they oppose whaling under any circumstances. Few of the developing nations that are beginning to transform CITES belong to the IWC, and so the IWC remains dominated by such animal rights views.

The increasingly marginalized and out-of-touch views of the United States were evident in its comments on the South African white rhino proposal, which failed to win the necessary approval by only two votes. South Africa sought merely to open a dialogue with some Asian countries on the topic of a potential trade in rhino horn. Rhino horn is popular in some countries, most notably China, as a medicinal remedy for fevers and other ailments.

CITES has always had little or no effect on traditional and medicinal demand, and as expected, rhino horn is as popular as ever in many Asian countries. In fact, the CITES ban has only served to increase the price of rhino horn, and therefore, the reward for poaching. Nevertheless, the U.S. opposed South Africa because "the effort . . .to reduce the demand for rhino horn may be undermined by this proposal."

This position underscores exactly what is wrong with CITES — the assumption that trade and conservation are diametrically opposed, unless proven otherwise. In fact, the opposite should be the guideline for CITES, and the southern white rhino is case in point. Whittled down to a population of nearly 20 by the turn of the century, the South African white rhino population now numbers over 7,500.

In a recent study for the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, South African economist Michael’t Sas Rolfes points out that the Natal Parks Board, which has been largely responsible for this remarkable recovery, demonstrates the efficacy of commercial use and management. The revenues generated from the sale of hunting concessions and live animals create a considerable incentive to conserve and propagate the rhino.

Unfortunately, this is one of the few examples of good government game management, and it is only because the Parks Board is relatively autonomous, so it behaves more like a private owner. The fundamental importance of secure tenure to wildlife conservation is, sadly, all but lost on the great majority of CITES participants, who all too often fail to understand the relationship between ownership and conservation.

Private conservators saved the South African bontebuck, the American bison, and countless other species that were wiped out on public lands, but dearly protected on private ones. And just as one might expect, the healthiest elephant populations tend to be in those countries that are turning to more and more local control over wildlife. The stronger these tenure systems are, the more wildlife, endangered or not, will benefit from trade and be fiercely protected.

After last month’s CITES decision, all eyes will be on Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, not only to see how they handle this trade, but to see how well they reward these local communities for their on-the-ground conservation work. If and when they do, and the world takes note, that will be the really dramatic turning point in international conservation. For until the CITES bias against trade is reconciled with the positive effects of private ownership on trade and conservation, it will continue to hamper conservation.

Michael De Alessi is a research associate at CEI and attended the CITES meeting in Zimbabwe.