In short, ivory prohibition has failed. It has been about as easy to stop elephant killing as to stop drug use. “As long as there is strong demand in the consumer countries, we probably will see people willing to risk going for ivory in the source countries,” warned Norwegian Oystein Storkersen, who chairs a CITES [Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flor] committee.
This demand makes ivory valuable. Explained Fitzmaurice: “The 1970s saw the price of ivory skyrocket. Suddenly, to a herder or subsistence farmer, this was no longer an animal but a walking fortune, worth more than a dozen years of honest toil. To currency-strapped governments and revolutionaries alike, ivory was a way to pay for more firearms and supplies.”
These incentives can be reversed. Explained CITES: “provided that their full value (i.e. both intrinsic and extrinsic) is fully realized by the landholders involved, not only will elephants be conserved but so will the accompanying range of biodiversity existing on such land.” Indeed, Fitzmaurice reported that in some parts of southern Africa today “Damaged land and crop losses are not only being tolerated, but villages are doing their best to guard against poachers. This surprising change in behavior is due to the proliferation of government programs that dispense licenses to villages, enabling locals, or paying hunters, to cull an allotted number of elephants each year.” In these areas poaching is down and some farmers have turned their marginal farms into game reserves.
In March CITES must decide whether it is better for elephants to be sacred and dead or commercial and alive. If elephants could talk, they almost certainly would prefer the second. So should the rest of us.