What is the future of the ivory trade

Recent years have seen a sea change in the attitude toward the use of ivory, unprecedented in history. A quarter of a century ago, perhaps no one could have anticipated that the international trade in tusks would grind to a halt, threatening the centuries-old ivory culture. From the simple ornamentals and figures fashioned out of mammoth tusks by the Upper Paleolithic people to the intricate carvings of the Asian masters in more recent times, the expression of art through the medium of ivory has been celebrated through history. Today, the ivory carver has all but disappeared in India, the Chinese carver has to rely on smuggled ivory to continue the profession, and even the Japanese hanko manufacturer is uncertain about the future supplies of raw ivory. Almost overnight, the use of ivory in any form is socially frowned on in most Western countries. What then is the future of the ivory culture, even the more genuine one supported by legal raw material? Is a ban on the international ivory trade really necessary? Will the trade be merely driven underground as a consequence, or will it die out eventually?

My views are that the shock treatment to the trade in ivory meted out by the international ban of 1989 was essential in the battle against poaching of African elephants. There is little doubt that the crash in ivory prices and demand soon after the ban and the sharp reduction in poaching have given many African elephant populations a fresh lease on life. Any attempt to reopen the trade within "one elephant inter-birth interval," in the words of Dobson and Poole, could potentially have been disastrous for many populations if it had succeeded. The consequences of the ban for Asian elephant populations are more equivocal.

At the same time, a more pragmatic, longer-term strategy for the trade in ivory has to be worked out. As elephant populations rebound in Africa and elephants die of natural causes, the stocks of ivory in the range states would continue to rise. It is unlikely that most countries would follow the Kenyan example of destroying all ivory stocks, as urged by some conservationists. After the initial shock, the price of raw ivory has recovered to a certain extent in Africa, although it is still depressed compared to the 1989 preban prices. The availability of ivory in the markets of nonrange African states suggests that it still moves across borders in defiance of the ban. Some ivory is still being shipped illegally from Africa to East Asia, as seen from the regular seizures at various places en route. The local ivory markets in Southeast and East Asian countries still continue to do business, some of this undoubtedly of illegal ivory of African and Asian origin. The price of Asian ivory rules firm in the local and international markets, while Asian elephants continue to be under pressure from poachers.

There seems to be no let up in the demand for hankos in Japan. While this can be partly met by preban stocks held in the country, the Japanese ivory traders and manufacturers would presumably be actively seeking raw material in the coming years (there are a minimum of 12,000 and maybe up to 50,000 ivory retailers in Japan). Attempts could be made to lower the demand for ivory products through public awareness campaigns; some Japanese conservationists are already active in this role.

One problem is the perception, especially since the early 1970s, of raw ivory as a valuable commodity that could be stored as a hedge against inflation. Investors in the prosperous Middle Eastern and East Asian countries have done just that in recent times. The Middle East, especially Dubai, has emerged as a transit and storage point for both African and Asian ivory being smuggled to East Asia. The growing economies of East Asia, in particular that of China, can also be expected to create new markets for ivory in the coming years. The ban has only partly destroyed the economic value of ivory. These are the reasons why synthetic substitutes for ivory have satisfied a few consumers, just as imitation gold has not replaced the demand for real gold.

Concurrently, the demand for partial opening of the ivory trade, especially by the southern African countries, will be voiced at every meeting of CITES. There is a real danger that some African countries might disengage from CITES if continually thwarted from selling their ivory stocks in the international market. One experiment in allowing a controlled transfer of ivory from southern Africa to Japan has already been carried out, with seemingly no adverse impact on elephant populations (although some may dispute this). Another experiment is underway after the vote at the COP in 2002. CITES has embarked, with the technical assistance of the IUCN's Species Survival Commission, on a program of monitoring the illegal killing of elephants (termed MIKE) in the two continents to look at its relationship, if any, to decisions on trade. At the same time, CITES and TRAFFIC-International have also set up a monitoring system for the illegal ivory trade (termed ETIS, or Elephant Trade Information System). These are essentially long-term monitoring mechanisms that cannot necessarily be expected to provide clear answers to decision making by the CITES COP in the short term.

It is highly likely that more experiments in "controlled trade" of ivory will be tried in the near future under CITES sanction. Perhaps a more objective analysis of the links between the ivory trade and poaching of elephants will emerge as this process of trial and error is used in the coming decades. It is important that these experiments are not costly and do not adversely impact elephant populations. There are obviously no easy answers to the dilemma of regulating the ivory trade.

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