Corruption Could Kill the Elephants–It’s Time to Ban All Ivory Trade Now

The ivory trade is spiraling out of control, accelerating very quickly in the past five years especially. A new study estimates that 100,000 elephants were killed in 2010, 2011, and 2012. With only about 400,000 elephants left, conservationists believe African elephants could be extinct in the wild within the decade. Unfortunately, this is a problem with no clear solutions, not least because corruption enables every aspect of the ivory trade. Inadequate enforcement of already-leaky laws has contributed to a situation wherein organized criminals collaborate with government officials to supply illegal ivory that is now worth more than its weight in gold.

Some have suggested that the ivory trade should be opened up and regulated, allowing governments to levy taxes to pay for increased enforcement and conservation. Most who have studied the issue conclude that this idea is madness — rampant corruption at every link in the supply chain means that illegal ivory would have no trouble working its way into the legal markets. The presence of a legal market, with legitimate supply channels, would merely accelerate the elephants’ demise.

What is needed instead is a renewal of the bans on ivory trading that were set in the late 1980s, the last time the ivory trade threatened the elephants’ existence so dramatically. Of course, corruption can undermine a ban as well. Nonetheless, a reinvigorated ban regime would be an important step forward, and seeking it is thus a worthy goal.

To get a sense of how corruption undermines every aspect of efforts to conserve elephants, consider these three major links in the supply chain:

  1. Sub-Saharan Africa. Of the wild elephants still remaining, many live under the ostensible protection of rangers in national parks dotted across Africa. Few of these parks are as well funded as the Kruger or Addo National Parks in South Africa, which attract large numbers of tourists and divert a healthy amount of money to conservation. In less fortunate parks, rangers (like those in the recent documentary Virunga) may endure corrupt government coercion and outright military assault in the course of protecting their park’s wildlife. For the many rangers who have limited resources and value their lives, accepting a bribe may be appealing.
  2. African Ports. Organized criminal gangs buy ivory from poachers and stockpile it for shipment in “vanishing points” (after which ivory disappears from Africa and does not return) like Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. By corrupting high-ranking government officials, criminals are able to operate with impunity — making deals with buyers whose ultimate aim is wholesale, primarily into the Chinese market.
  3. China. While some ivory available for purchase in China is legal, the vast majority is illegal, having entered the market via a variety of circumventions of that country’s ivory certificate system. Government officials responsible for enforcing the “ivory rations” (the amount of ivory that a single factory can process in a month) can be bribed to allow carving factories in China to process ten times more ivory than is legally permissible. Retail buyers are usually unaware of whether the ivory they are buying is legal or illegal.

As mentioned earlier, some people look at this situation and suggest that the answer is to create a legal market for ivory. This idea is dead on arrival. The extent of corruption in the ivory trade means that illegal ivory will have no trouble working its way into the supply channels that have been conveniently established by the legal trade. Indeed, much of the above activity is profitable only because a semi-legal market exists that can provide cover for the entry of illegally-obtained ivory. Smugglers have numerous opportunities, all along the supply chain, to bribe officials who have the power to designate certain ivory legal or illegal. Moreover, unlike in the market for, say, legalized marijuana, the supply of elephants is completely overwhelmed by demand. The only reasonable way to combat this problem is to go in the other direction — towards instituting outright bans on ivory trading in every jurisdiction that it passes through.

That being said, some argue that corruption can just as easily undermine a ban regime as it can any other. In fact, the current legal regime in most countries is described as a “ban.” Even though recreational narcotics, human slaves, and military weapons are completely banned, they still manage to pass through the world’s supply chain, often with the complicity of corrupt officials. Ivory is no different, as we’ve seen. While this is true insofar as corruption is always a problem, instituting a new set of unambiguous bans would reduce the opportunity for officials to exercise their discretion, and thus reduce opportunities to bribe them.

Consider that the presence of legal ivory complicates matters even in developed countries. In most such jurisdictions, ivory trading is subject to strict legal controls that nevertheless contain exceptions for certain ivory. For instance, in California there is a ban against the sale of all ivory unless it was imported before 1977. As one can imagine, law enforcement officials generally lack the resources to investigate whether suspected ivory was imported before then. It’s easy to make newly-poached ivory “look old.” Technology could one day help bring down the cost of detection, but in the meantime carbon dating and DNA testing are still relatively time-and-resource intensive. The result is a robust trade in illegal ivory.

If even developed countries don’t have the capacity to enforce partial bans, it is unsurprising that corrupt actors in less developed countries would find opportunities to exploit these loopholes. What would greatly simplify the whole process of enforcing ivory controls would be an outright ban on the commercial sale of any ivory, with perhaps very narrow exceptions for antique musical instruments and museums.

But this brings us to the objection that reinvigorating ban regimes is only possible in uncorrupted countries where there is already political will to do so. Indeed, while New York State, California, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service are all moving towards outright bans, arguably the most important entities, like China or the UN’s Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), are still far from passing bans. So, skeptics suggest, elephants would be better off if conservationists spent their time on more incremental anticorruption activities (like enhanced education programs or better enforcement of existing laws), rather than tilting at windmills.

But this seemingly prudent and pragmatic objection falters, for two reasons. The first is the futility of trying to enforce the current regime. The second is the fact that strong international bans are not without precedent: In 1989, the last time elephants were threatened so completely, CITES managed to pass an international trading ban over Japan’s abstention and five African countries refusal to accede. That this feat was accomplished at the height of Japanese economic power and with far less African support than is already secured today should encourage elephant conservationists to seek a powerful anticorruption tool — unambiguous bans on ivory trading.

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