Will Legalization of the Ivory Trade Save Rhinos and Elephants from Extinction?

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (TFC) – Environmentalists have been alarmed by the resurgence of the ivory trade and the poaching of rhinos and elephants that it has driven.  This poaching has decimated rhino and elephant populations, threatening them with extinction.  However, this problem has also grown into a larger threat, as small-scale poaching operations have been transformed into gigantic criminal enterprises that are believed to be financing terrorism in Africa.  These problems have induced many countries to ramp up efforts to combat the illegal ivory trade.  However, with poaching at an all-time high and the emergence of ivory blackmarkets, many have begun to question the wisdom of this approach.

Governments in Africa, who often rely heavily on tourist revenue from safaris and national parks, have taken numerous countermeasures to combat the poaching of rhinos and elephants.  The government of South Africa has begun to recruit militarized rangers to patrol their national parks and to fight against poachers.  Kenya has gone even further by deploying armed rangers to literally serve as personal body guards for their last male white rhino and removing its horn to make it a less appealing target for poachers.  Unfortunately, these measures have not been enough to stamp out poaching and elephants are being killed so quickly that they could be extinct in twenty years.  Rhinos are in an even more precarious position and could be extinct in as early as ten years.

Massive corruption within some countries has also undermined efforts to stamp out this illicit economy.  Numerous police officers, park rangers, port authority workers, and government employees are believed to be complicit in smuggling operations.  There have also been allegations that Chinese officials [page 22], and possibly even the President of China, have procured ivory during official state trips and smuggled it in diplomatic bags.  Amid this backdrop of corruption, black-marketeering, and high levels of poaching, some governments and civil society organizations have begun to question the wisdom of criminalizing the ivory trade.

Those who support the legalization of the ivory trade would compare the current situation to the failed war on drugs.  They would argue that legalization would help to eliminate the criminal activity surrounding the ivory trade.  However, legalizing the hunting of elephants and rhinos to obtain ivory would likely lead to the rapid extinction of these species as demand is higher than current supply.  Realizing this, proponents of legalization have provided some options for ensuring the survival of these species.  The first option would be rhino farming, in which people would operate farms where they raise rhinos and harvest ivory from them.  Since the horn will grow back once it is removed, this could be a sustainable option for providing rhino horn.  Another option would be the manufacture of synthetic ivory via 3D printing technology that can create a replica of a rhino horn.

Both of these options have serious drawbacks, however.  Rhino farming is problematic because the scale of production would probably not satisfy consumer demand, which again provides incentives to poach.  Synthetic ivory is more promising because production on an industrial scale could meet demand.  However, it is also problematic because many consumers demand ivory as a status symbol and erroneously believe that it has medicinal properties.  As a result, they would likely reject synthetic ivory.  Currently, synthetic ivory can be distinguished from natural ivory through chemical tests.  As a result, many argue it is unlikely that synthetic ivory will act as a substitute for the real thing.

Image Source: Diana Robinson, Flickr, Creative Commons Mother elephant with twins in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, East Africa

Image Source: Diana Robinson, Flickr, Creative Commons
Mother elephant with twins in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, East Africa

With advances in technology, it is conceivable that synthetic ivory, that is indistinguishable from natural ivory, can be produced in the near future.  Most environmentalists view this as the holy grail of elephant and rhino conservation because its mass production could meet consumer demand, removing incentives to hunt actual animals.  However, I am skeptical that this will provide the solution that environmentalists hope for as poachers will likely innovate ways to create a certification system that tracks the source of ivory.  This is entirely plausible as the international community has created systems to ensure that natural resources and consumer goods are sourced in ethical ways.  I see no reason why the criminal underworld couldn’t replicate a verification system for tracking ivory from poached animals, although I admit that I cannot fully workout the exact details of how such a system would operate in practice.

These pitfalls of a legalized ivory economy leaves few good options for saving elephants and rhinos from extinction.  However, I do believe that there are some positive steps that can be taken.  Most of the elephants and rhinos reside in national parks that are surrounded by rural communities that are deeply impoverished.  One of the main problems is that people from these communities often engage in poaching operations or are complicit in them.  The motivations to do this usually arise from poverty and the fact that many of these communities receive few, if any, benefits from the national park.  In fact, many of these local communities can be harmed by the park as they can be victims of violent attacks and theft from wildlife.  As a result, these communities have few incentives to protect the animals in the park from poaching.

Changing this will require that these local communities become a stakeholder in the continued survival of these species, which entails linking the economic well-being of these communities with the continued survival of the wildlife in the park.  This can be achieved by sharing tourist revenue with the community, encouraging tour companies to hire locally, and encouraging the creation of gainful and fulfilling employment within these communities.  The idea is that the local community will see that the prevention of poaching will benefit them more over the long-run and will end their involvement in the ivory economy.

This model of conservation is very promising.  It has been successful in the case of the mountain gorilla in Rwanda and is believed to have brought the mountain gorilla back from the brink of extinction.  Some countries, that have large populations of elephants and rhinos, have already introduced similar programs.  However, many countries have failed to do so and need to urgently implement these programs to save their remaining elephants and rhinos.  I admit that this solution is not perfect and that it will not stop all poaching.  However, it is the best chance that we have for reducing poaching and saving the elephants and rhinos that remain.