CALIFORNIA: Is there a direct correlation between domestic bans and increased poaching? And if there is, does that mean countries like Singapore should abandon the proposed domestic ban? That’s the million-dollar question conservationists are debating.
Some local free-market conservationists argue that a ban on ivory will raise the perception of scarcity, drive up prices and snuff out demand.
At face value, it sounds reasonable. Diamonds are rare and they’re expensive. But upon closer inspection, this overly simplistic approach completely misses the point.
YES, AN IVORY BAN CAN BE EFFECTIVE
Ivory prices are down in China and Hong Kong, due to new domestic bans in these two of the biggest markets. Soon after China announced it would ban ivory in 2017, raw ivory prices fell to US$730 per kilogram, from US$2,100 per kilogram in 2014, according to Kenya-based conservation group, Save The Elephants’ researchers, Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin.
That’s a substantial decrease of 65 per cent.
The decline in price is a critical point that deserves more attention. It signals two key aspects: Less profit for traders and poachers, and fewer consumer purchases.
By knocking off profits and creating a powerful disincentive at every point in the illegal wildlife trade chain, bans on buying and selling help to ease some of the pressure on threatened species like elephants, sharks, rhinos and pangolins. But they are not a panacea.
STIFFER PENALTIES FOR CRIMINALS
Stronger regulations coupled with stiffer penalties, improved enforcement efforts, and increased consumer awareness are all critical components to reducing demand effectively and thus diminishing the scale of the poaching problem for the long-term.
In key East African countries, thanks to improved regulations and better enforcement, along with increased consumer awareness in key ivory-purchasing Asian countries, elephant poaching has decreased.
In Kenya and Tanzania, poaching has been significantly reduced thanks to stiff law-enforcement efforts resulting in record high seizures of 40 tonnes of trafficked ivory globally, and strategic investment in wildlife tourism and conservation education.
But in other countries in Africa, where law enforcement is weak - this is not the case. The African forest elephant, in particular, has suffered a drastic decline in its population, with 95 per cent of the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo now devoid of elephants.
Action against the illegal ivory trade would benefit from ensuring that all links in the chain of consumption are closed. Major countries like China, the US and the UK have moved to close their domestic ivory markets to give elephants a fighting chance against shadowy global poaching syndicates.
A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH NEEDED TO END POACHING
The risks of creating a “controlled market” are too great. This was already attempted in 2008 and it resulted in a surge in demand and poaching. The "permitted" ivory provided a cover and laundering mechanism for the poached ivory.
Only through a united and comprehensive approach can we end the illegal wildlife trade. This requires bans in consuming countries as well as a concerted effort to extinguish the demand and ensure enforcement is applied consistently to eliminate the profits for poachers, smugglers and traders.
John Baker is the Chief Programme Officer for WildAid, a global conservation organisation that works to reduce the consumption of wildlife products and to increase local support for conservation efforts.