What would effectively stop elephant poaching in Africa?

Answer by Rory Young:

I mulled over how to answer this for some time because there are just so many things that can and must be done, I decided to look at the broader picture because no matter the effort of the brave few on the ground, without the will of the world’s nations to put an end to ivory and other poaching it is a losing battle.

There is currently a struggle between two very polarized groups of African countries (and their corners) on how to deal with the problem.

Firstly it is important to look at the three links in the ivory supply chain. These are the poachers, the traffickers and the consumers.

Firstly with regards to the consumers.
There are two approaches to the problem.

The first approach, promoted mostly by Kenya, focuses on ending the international legal trade in ivory.This ivory is from legally culled or hunted elephants in countries with large populations. It is believed that by doing so demand will dramatically reduce or dry up altogether.Those who support the theory believe that demand will dry up and their will therefore be no more demand.

The argument against this approach is that the demand will always be there and that the supply of legal ivory should be carefully controlled and funds funneled into wildlife management.

To give some context to these different approaches we also need to look at the different situations between these groups of countries. Zimbabwe for example has over 80’000 elephants and the population increases at about 3% per annum. Zimbabwe is in favour of limited trade in legal ivory. Kenya on the other hand has around 12’000 elephants, the population is decreasing rapidly and the Kenyan government is totally against any trade.

Where both groups agree is that the countries where this illegal ivory is going are not doing enough to discourage its sale.

Next we need to look at the traffickers. These are smugglers of just the same ilk as drug or blood diamond traffickers. However, their are much fewer controls and and because many of the States these traffickers come from have a very disinterested views of wildlife conservation, they are much more easily able to collude with the authorities in the countries they are shipping to. Like any illicit product, it is relatively easy to get it out. Controls and checks are usually at ports of entry not exit and as a result the methods, systems and infrastructure are not in place to stop exports.

The big problem again is the lack of will to get tough at the countries where the ivory is going. The customs departments are just not motivated to arrest and charge traffickers.

Thirdly we need to look at the poaching itself. The approach to stopping the poaching again differs tremendously between the two groups of countries mentioned before. In Kenya an ivory poacher will likely get off with a fine. In Zimbabwe he could be shot if he doesn’t surrender immediately contact is made with him and then he will face up to 7 years in prison (typically 5).

As you can imagine the group of countries with the vast majority of elephants also has the toughest policies for dealing with poaching. Most of them also support limited trade in ivory.

Whether supporting this is right or wrong, it will be impossible for the Kenya group to convince the others to change this until Kenya itself shows that they are really doing what needs to be done to fight the poaching itself. Iain Douglas-Hamilton recently said that Kenya is all that is standing between the poachers and the large Southern African populations. If that is true then God help us because if Kenya’s way of fighting poaching is with fines then they will have no elephants left soon.

Now to answer your question. I believe that Kenya has held an idealistic policy that has also not been supported by tough action. Realistic pragmatism is needed and a will to save what is left.

There needs to be an all out war on poachers in East Africa, supported by the African Union, as it is a cross border problem with harsh penalties imposed.

There needs to be international pressure and action against the traffickers and the nations that allow them to ply their trade.

With regards the consumers, the ivory itself needs to be made untouchable, taboo, illegal or dangerous. That can only happen if the governments of those buying get serious. Whether or not the trade should be banned, there should only be allowed a tiny amount of extremely expensive legal ivory sold to these countries. Any revenue should be proven to have been channeled back into anti poaching and other conservation efforts.

It is possible to win this war. I mentioned that Zimbabwe has 80’000+ elephants. Well, in 1900 there were less than 500 left.

The white rhino was reintroduced into Zimbabwe from South Africa after being wiped out completely and the Black Rhino was reintroduced into South Africa from Zimbabwe after being wiped out.

So, this war can be won but to win it needs money will and champions. All are in
short supply. What it doesn’t need is procrastination, half-hearted effort, hesitation or denial. It is a war just like any other war, it needs action and massive support to win it.

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17 thoughts on “What would effectively stop elephant poaching in Africa?

  1. is it possible to “damage” (to rend unusable) ivory so that is no longer attractive to poachers and the market ?

    • Hi Salisha. Estimates vary greatly. For example in 2009 the WWF and Africa Wildlife Foundation estimated Zimbabwe’s elephant population at 110’000. At the other end of the scale, here is an article claiming that Zim officials inflated the numbers http://www.newzimbabwe.com/pages/dinasaur2.11631.html
      Furthermore the largest population in and around Hwange National Park moves seasonally across the border into and from and around Chobe National Park in Botswana.
      If you wouldlike tosee the count data you could contact the Zimbabwe Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management or any of the many NGOs that assist in the counts. If you woulf like contact details message me and I will put you in touch with a reputable group.

  2. Mr. Young. Nicely written up as usual. You make some valid points on the demand of ivory and of course the chain of supply. Its the same story in Rhino conservation too – just how on earth does one discourage the demand for ivory and or rhino horn and or and or…its a very problematic area. Just as soon as we weed out all corruption on the continent, then all the sound ideas on harvesting can be applied properly – sadly, there is corruption at every point of the compass, from the government officials who see a fast buck to some of the unscrupolous hunters out there who have fiddled the system and bribed their way into getting bigger quotas etc. I accept these are not the rule, and that most hunters are professional who abide by the law, but it is true to say that not all of them are like that. Opportunism is born from fluid and corrupt enviroments where unscrupolous hunters and outfitters have cut deals with criminals in order to shoot without care. I’m leaving out all moral aspects here – but just on the scientific evaluation of herd numbers and the degree of environmental degredation and the un scientific colation of figures on all fronts leaves me with the opinion that nothing should be kulled or harvested until hard 99% accurate math has taken place. The reality is that its a LONG way away from being all that accurate. As for 80 000 head of elephant in Zimbabwe….I wouldnt put my cock on the block on that one. The actual methods employed for counting elephant can and have traditionally been abused by officialdome to twist the real situation on the ground – Cites delisting in 97 for example where Zim claimed that its ‘static’ population was 65 000. Fly low level taking photos over Hwange, in the late afternoon over the water holes and then times the number by the surface area of the park and you’ll have a hugely inaccurate figure. Just as placing well meaning wild life society volunteers around the water holes for 3 days counting is not going to give you enough actionable scientific data – certainly not enough to reliably determine the fate of the species. As you rightly point out too, the herd in Hwange criss cross over into Botswana and back again. I doubt either Botswana or Zimbabwe have a truly meaningfully accurate idea of the real numbers on the ground. The devil is in the detail, if you really press the people concerned with making these evaluation you soon find holes in their arguments. In truth I would say that it is really really inaccurate. Remote sensing via sat is deemed too expensive – but with such big questions to be answered, such as kulling and responcible harvesting and generally conserving the enviroment – you’d think someone would pay for it. Its a sure thing that no-one on the continent is doing it right 100% – not the Kenyans and nor the Tanzanians and not the Zimbabweans, or the Bots guys and realistically, as close to better as they are, even the South Africans are not winning the battle just yet. I find it hard to commit to shooting at things in the dark – as I’m sure you’d agree. Your ever lefty friend, salaams N

  3. I’m in Kenya and involved in wildlife tourism and conservation. I agree with much of what you say, such as that the demand for ivory (especially from China) is enormous and is unlikely to go away, that little or nothing is being done to deal with illegal traffickers and smugglers in the receiving or exporting countries and that there needs to be a war on poaching. Many of us in Kenya have been calling for heavier penalties on smugglers and poachers as the sentences handed out recently have been so lenient as to be derisory. Kenya’s newly elected President has already spoken publicly against poaching and the new government has stated its intention to bring in much tougher penalties for people caught trafficking ivory and rhino horn as well as to put more resources into fighting poachers. We need to keep up the lobbying to see that this happens.
    The figure of 12,000 which you mention for Kenya’s elephant population doesn’t look right to me, as all the local evidence here in Kenya is that it is more than double that. However we are absolutely not complacent and we have been pointing out that we lost 100,000 elephants in the 1970s and 1980s until the international ban on the ivory trade was put in place in 1989 at which point the poaching virtually ended overnight. At that stage we had about 18,000 elephants and today that number has increased to 30,000. But with the huge demand for ivory and the recent rapid increase in poaching, we could easily lose most of the 30,000 elephants we have today, considering that in the last big wave of poaching we lost 100,000.
    I agree with you that there needs to be action to try to deal with demand by educating the Chinese consumers to understand where ivory comes from (as you say, make ivory a taboo and untouchable!), by having a serious effort to stop the illicit trafficking, by having an all-out wars on poaching and to have serious penalties for those caught and convicted. But I cannot see how opening up the legal ivory trade right now is going to help. We will just be back to where we were pre-1989 when it was legal and we lost hundreds of thousands of elephants in Africa. I accept your argument that if it were possible to control the supply of ivory so that it came only from “legal” sources such as government stockpiles of seized ivory and ivory from natural deaths of elephants then perhaps some of the income from a legal trade could be tapped to help towards the cost of conservation of elephants. But with the current massive levels of corruption all along the supply chain and in the absence of any effective controls to stop trafficking and a lack of effective anti-poaching it will be impossible to distinguish between legal and illicit ivory and I believe that before any consideration is given to a legal trade in the future the first action must be to deal with the illegal trade and the poaching and that we need concerted efforts and co-operation to do this.

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  8. I just love animals! And another news… I just found out that Manila Zoo has a cute elephant named Mali, and she is the only elephant in the Philippines! She has lived there for almost all of her lives, for more than 30 years. The zoo should feel like her sweet and cozy home now. But then, I read some articles in PETAAsiaPacific.com, and I noticed that Mali is in fact sad and lonely! Look at her here: https://www.facebook.com/FreeMali. She is like a prisoner, who cannot spend her days with her friends, roam in vast territories, and have delicious adequate food! She even suffers from foot problems. Why does she deserve this? 😦 Please Help Her!

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