The recent Economist magazine had an article on the surge in elephant poaching now occurring in Africa. Much of the article covers familiar territory. Organised, well-resourced and competent international criminal conspiracies have upped the poaching pressure on elephants. And they pretty much have the initiative.
This threatens to return African elephants to the crisis times of the 1970s and 1980s, when poaching was rampant and extinction loomed for many populations. This led to an ivory trade ban, in 1989, and in turn to a collapse in demand for ivory.
– The Economist
Well, this kind of simplifies the story. The ivory ban was well-broadcast in advance and people were busy stockpiling ivory as fast as they could acquire it in Asia. This kept ivory prices accelerating until the ban kicked in. The bidding-war for stocks stopped and the price-bubble collapsed.
It did have a temporary benefit also of disrupting the supply-chain from Africa to Asia. Smugglers were laundering poached ivory into the legal stream as this was the least-cost route. As a consequence, they had to rebuild new supply networks. It bought some time for elephants.
In southern Africa, where there is relatively little poaching, support for lifting the trade ban is strong. But east African countries, especially Kenya, which led the original campaign for it, say this would increase demand for ivory, which would often be met by poaching
Of course, the interesting question is why there is little poaching in southern Africa. Poaching isn't a ubiquitous problem. Even during the 1980s as wild elephant numbers were plummeting, populations in southern Africa were actually growing. It seems you can achieve effective protection on the ground and this does hinder poaching.
And please, not the legal trade will increase demand argument. What happened to illegal alcohol producers in the US after prohibition ended. Did the legal trade increase the demand for illegal alcohol- or simply out-compete it to extinction. It out-competed it. Just as what happened in the crocodile leather market as well. Legal supply is a competitive force.
Yes, there are ways in which a legal trade can lead to more increased illegal traffic, but this isn't moderated by the demand-side of the market.
Let's point out that the last legal shipment to hit China from Africa was in 2008. One can hardly be surprised that prices are now on the rise and spurring poaching.
Yet if the trade ban is losing its force, what will save the elephants? Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants, an advocacy group, says educating Chinese shoppers about the bloody origins of their purchase would help.
And when law enforcement can't get the initiative back from poachers, what do we so often come up with. Aah, that's right, 'education'. Education has become that catchall phrase of what to do, when you really don't have a clue as to what to do.
I thought this shot (I took it on some tiger black-market work) would be appropriate. It's from China in 2008. That's 4 years ago. You can see elephants are one of the targeted species.
This was taken at one of China's smuggling hotspots- the border between Vietnam and Yunnan. There have been education campaigns running in these countries for years. I'm really unconvinced we have the means to shift demand by education, and dubious that this is the appropriate focus for anti-smuggling campaigns.