DUCK SOUP: Ivory Costs

Ten years ago the African elephant was on the fast track to extinction. The world trade in ivory was a lucrative industry supplied in large part by heavily armed poachers. Wildlife officers were outgunned and outmaneuvered -- when they weren't simply paid off. The carnage was almost unbelievable and rotting corpses of tuskless pachyderms littered the African savannah.In the barest nick of time the nations which are party to the Convention In Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) enacted a total ban on ivory sales. Mountains of ivory confiscated from poachers were set afire, a clear signal that continued poaching would be fruitless. There would be no outlet whatsoever. With the profit motive all but eliminated, the black market dwindled, poachers turned their talents to other happy pastimes like slaughtering apes (about which more below), and elephants began to recover.The big beasts did too well for their own good, it seems, particularly in Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Available elephant habitat became crowded and the large, hungry foragers began to think outside their National Park boxes. Pleading that the herds required culling, and that funds for environmental protection were scarce, the countries successfully obtained a special dispensation from CITES last April. After ten years of protection, ivory became a legal commodity again.By June the street price of ivory in Kenya had shot up from $5 per kilogram to $25, according to Dr. Richard Leakey who -- as Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service -- had overseen both the last-ditch protection efforts preceding the CITES ban and the species' ensuing recovery. This year upward of two dozen elephants were poached within Kenya's Tsavo National Park. The Kenya Wildlife Service recovered 350 kilograms of poached ivory in July which is the biggest seizure in a decade. Stepped-up enforcement efforts have resulted in some arrests, but the obvious problem remains: ivory doesn't grow with a "Made in Botswana" label attached. A legal market makes ivory "laundering" relatively simple and profitable.As usual the culprit is economic inequality. While the wealthy world exhibits an insatiable hunger for pleasure and the folks at the bottom of the heap enjoy unsatiated hunger, the temptation to dabble in illegal commodities has an obvious allure. The ivory trade is only different from cocaine and heroin in degree, the need for objets d' art being somewhat less urgent than the need for a fix. In the same vein, a burgeoning trade in "bush meat," is supplying well-heeled connosieurs (predominantly ex-patriate Africans) with chimpanzee, bonobo and orangutan flesh.While the poaching problem is a local wildlife issue for Africans (or Asians, in the case of orangutans), the factors driving the hunted animals toward extinction are global. Western gun dealers pour weapons into the world's markets, turning the current generation of poachers into a military force. Western industries build roads and transportation systems to extract timber and ore, which facilitate ingress for hunters and hastens shipment of their quarry. Western banks, most egregiously the World Bank, pursue policies which further impoverish the world's poor. And the United States Congress does its utmost to defund birth control programs with a fussy sensitivity about possible abortions in a world where Rwandans were lately hacking each others' babies with machetes. Western priorities are, shall we say, scrambled?Speaking of Rwanda, it is worth noting that even in the midst of their horrendous internecine warring, Rwandans protected their gorilla population. While hungry refugees from the inter-ethnic holocaust poured into safer territory -- including that of the mountain gorilla -- Rwandans did not violate their ethical commitment to that endangered great ape. There could be no clearer illustration that the illicit bush-meat trade, like that in ivory, is cash and consumer driven rather than an expression of local hunger.There are no easy answers, and burgeoning human numbers may eliminate elephants even without the ivory trade. But the immediate threat can be stopped. At CITES' annual meeting next April our representatives should insist on renewal of the ivory ban. At the same time we can increase aid to Africa for both environmental protection and population planning. After all, the big stash of ivory seized in Kenya was only worth about nine thousand bucks, suggesting that the dollar cost of saving the African elephant from greed is, well, peanuts.

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