On Thursday, Nov. 14, the U.S. government crushed nearly 11,000 pounds of raw and carved ivory that had been seized over the last 25 years from smugglers and illegal dealers. The value of the huge pile if ivory is inestimable, as the carved pieces are considered works of art, but it can be pretty safely assumed that this collection of ivory was worth well over $10 million, as small ivory figurines routinely sell for around $500 a piece, and prices have been escalating due to stricter regulation and enforcement of legal trade in ivory.
Ivory is a tricky, and touchy, subject. While walrus tusks and whales teeth are often called ivory, true ivory comes from only one source: the tusks of elephants. Elephants are amazing creatures that roam the wilds of Africa, parts of Asia and India. In many areas, wild elephants have been driven to the brink of extinction by loss of habitat and poaching. As the largest land mammals on the planet, elephants need a lot of space, food and water. Encroachment of development on elephant lands means that the land can’t support herds of the same size that they once did. During droughts and famine, when elephants would historically migrate to other ranges, they now often have no place to go because man has taken over their fallback areas, consumed the resources, cleared the forests, planted crops or erected barriers such as highways or residential areas across the elephants’ travel routes. As with all wildlife in conflict with man, elephant survival is dependent on man finding a way to restore some semblance of balance.
In North America, the method which has proven most successful for restoring and protecting species is called the “consumptive model.” In the consumptive model of wildlife management, sport hunters play a pivotal role; not only do they cull herds – harvesting excess animals to maintain numbers at healthy, manageable and sustainable levels – but they also pay for most of the environmental protection and improvement programs through license fees, self-imposed taxes and voluntary contributions. In many areas, hunters also provide the lion’s share of meat for homeless shelters and other charitable food programs.
While letting hunters kill animals for sport seems counter-intuitive as a wildlife protection scheme, it has proven to be the only system that actually works. Without hunters – and the fees, taxes and donations they pay – conservation programs are inevitably under-funded. Without hunters thinning herds, overpopulation, over-grazing and massive die-offs due to starvation and disease invariably ensue. Oversized herds cause millions of dollars of destruction to crops and infrastructure, spread diseases to domestic livestock and destroying vast areas of land with over-grazing and the resultant erosion. Without adequate funding, governments are unable to adequately manage the wildlife and the serious conflicts that ensue between farmers and wildlife, man and predators, wildlife collisions on roadways, etc., exact an expensive toll on the economy and of human life. Frequently farmers and ranchers resort to poison or large-scale slaughters to protect their crops, livestock and lands. Food prices go up, support for wildlife and conservation goes down, and government funding for wildlife protection goes down even further.
The problems of poaching – particularly in Africa – are complex and cannot be solved by simply making rules or making it illegal to deal in ivory or rhino horn. To find solutions, the problems must first be examined in their entireties, not in isolation. African poachers are typically excruciatingly poor men trying to feed themselves and their families. They sell the tusks or horns for almost nothing to shady operators who have connections into the black market, and the illicit goods head to retail markets. If the poverty of the locals is not adequately addressed, they will continue to tolerate or participate in poaching. If herd sizes aren’t managed, they will destroy crops – further impoverishing the locals – over-graze, and starve. If the animals can’t access water or adequate food supplies during times of drought, they will move to other areas, increasing conflicts with man, destruction of property and habitat, and costs to governments and taxpayers.
In response to the destruction of 5.4 tons of ivory, Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, compared the illicit ivory trade to trade in heroin, pointing out that we don’t put confiscated heroin back on the streets. He then said that those who opposed the destruction were misguided because allowing restricted, legal trade in ivory had been “a disaster.” He went on to say, “you have to look at history and you have to learn it’s lessons.”
OK, Mr. Knights, let’s look at history and learn some lessons:
1) The price of ivory is going through the roof because of regulation and scarcity of supply. That makes each piece of raw ivory more valuable and the $10 billion-a-year illicit ivory trade even more lucrative.
2) Dumping 11,000 pounds of ivory into the legal market would have generated millions of dollars toward anti-trafficking efforts and caused a drop in the value of ivory overall.
3) Everywhere that wildlife management has been tried without a sport-hunting component, it has failed miserably. Only the North American consumptive model of wildlife management has a proven record of effective, humane and responsible conservation.
4) African nations with active sport-hunting programs have fewer problems with poachers because hunters pay for wildlife enforcement officers. Hunting guides act as auxiliary enforcement officers in defense of their business. Locals receive work from hunting guides and meat from hunters.
As unpalatable as sport-hunting might be to some, it is the only model proven to be effective at protecting wildlife, habitat and humans.