Last year, I wrote an article for the magazine Conservation about the resurgence of poaching of ivory in Africa and how new technology in forensics was being applied to helping to track down those responsible.
During the research for this article, it became clear that even an improbable increase in the rate at which poachers were caught and prosecuted would be unlikely to make any real dent on the problem of ivory poaching. There are always too many people with guns who are willing to participate. Its a similar problem with drugs.
It made me ask the question, why did the ivory ban work in 1989 and not now? It was hailed as such a conservation success. It turns out that the reason the ivory ban worked in 1989, was that it was accompanied by a massive campaign that educated most people around the world not to buy ivory. This reduced the demand, and thus the incentive to poach.
Today, increased wealth in Asia (where markets never really closed down) is driving up demand again. The ban has allowed an illegal trade to become established, one that is difficult and expensive to fight, and one that perhaps cannot be won--if lessons from other parts of organised crime hold true for wildlife. In addition, one economist I spoke with also pointed out that from an incentive point of view, not being able to trade in elephant parts was also reducing the incentive for people to keep elephants on land.
While the elephant is growing at a rate of 4% in Southern and Western Africa (mostly Tanzania) where populations are well protected, seizure rates of poached ivory suggests that something more sinister is happening elsewhere. Massive, and record, hauls of ivory are being made which may translate to an offtake rate of 7% a year or higher. Some scientist suggesting that the rates of poaching could be as high as they were prior to the 1989 ban. As I completed the piece, however, the ivory ban was extended for a further nine years by governments at an international meeting of the trade ban body (known as CITES).
Earlier this year, I started talking to more people about CITES bans, as well as economists. I wasn't surprised that the economists were doubtful about the usefulness of trade bans. What surprised me was that many conservationists also felt that trade bans had a limited usefulness and they worked well only under certain circumstances. In high-profile cases, such as elephants, it might be possible to pay for a huge campaign to try and reduce demand in Asia, or to shame national governments (including America) into closing down the illegal ivory markets inside their own borders. But the problem remains: trade bans are simply a piece of paper that do not require governments to spend a single penny on enforcement. Furthermore, in cases where organised crime is involved, enforcement may be beyond the strength of individual governments.
It all raises the question of what is really being solved when governments get together and ban the trade in a species. Are they protecting it forever? Or are they providing it a bit of breathing space, after which more problems are created by a ban than are solved?
Call of the wild Is the prohibition of trade saving wildlife, or endangering it? Mar 6th 2008
The answer to the question is that CITES trade bans are a double-edged sword, and need to be used with caution. One of the reasons they fail is that governments simply spend too little money in making sure they are enforced, and in using them to control demand.
As an aside, one of the reasons that CITES bans fail is that there are land use conflicts with humans. People want to use land for something else other than "worthless" wildlife. In the sea, one economist told me, things are different. The reason that stuff is removed from the sea is only to trade them. This means that, strangely, trade bans (or in the case of whales, exploitation bans), are far more effective in the ocean than they are in the sea.