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The Destruction of Ivory Stocks Should Be Welcomed - But We Must Now Explain the Human Cost of this Vile Trade

13/02/2014 09:47 | Updated 13 April 2014

Last week's highly publicised destruction of ivory stockpiles has thrust the poaching debate back into the international media spotlight. It also preceded the international conference on the $19bn a year illegal wildlife trade hosted by the UK Government in London this week, attended by over 50 nations.

This peak in interest in the damage of the illegal wildlife trade follows a disastrous period for wildlife in Africa. Animals slaughtered by poaching have now outpaced the last surge a quarter of a century ago. The statistics beggar belief. During 2012 in South Africa a staggering 668 Rhinos were killed by poachers - two per day. Figures for 2013 suggest this increased to over 1000. Rhino poaching increased 5000% between 2007-12, with one killed by a poacher every 10 hours.

And across Africa, 32,000 elephants were killed in 2012. African forest elephants have declined by 62% in a recent 12 month period. If poaching and deforestation continue unchallenged, elephants in Central and Western Africa will be extinct with a generation. At the time of writing, Africa is losing an elephant once every fifteen minutes.

The recent destruction of ivory stockpiles should be welcomed. While its critics label it as superficial posturing, it has catalysed a global conversation in recent weeks over the huge amount of illegal ivory seized by national authorities. Destroying ivory stockpiles seems to be a positive move, if only because it creates conversation and awareness about the illegal wildlife business.

Yet it would be misplaced to conclude that the public sight ivory crushing on the streets of Paris, Nairobi or even Beijing will precipitate the beginning of end for this illegal commodity. There has been little evidence to indicate destruction of stockpiles is linked to any tangible conservation victories.

In fact, countries in both Africa and transit markets in Asia or the West must think very carefully about whether stockpiling ivory in this way makes any sense at all. While drugs, weapons or other contraband are often destroyed immediately, the storage of ivory only creates further problems - stockpiling is extremely costly, and there have been cases where corrupt officials have let seized stocks 'leak'. Stockpiling can also send an ambiguous message, suggesting that ivory may still hold a quasi-legal status.

Conversely, flooding the market with cheap ivory is not the solution. While it may make a temporary dent in the operations of criminal organisations, it creates a further pattern of legitimacy amongst ivory poachers, traders and consumers. This is a dangerous precedent to set. Depressingly, the economics of extinction also mean that as populations decrease, ivory's value inexorably rises.

Yet we must look beyond the harrowing pictures of butchered elephants and rhinos if we are to truly understand the implications of this crisis. Whilst this story started as an ecological one, it is also now a human tragedy. Of course, the protection of Africa's unique ecosystems is a priority. But with a new job created for every ten tourists that travel to Kenya, for example, honest livelihoods are also being destroyed in the process.

This human story goes further. Crucially, the ivory trade is now fully entwined with some of this century's most pressing international security concerns. The white gold now funds transnational criminal gangs, giving extra fuel to the child sex trade and narcotics traffickers.

There is evidence that Al-Shabaab have used Kenyan ivory as a vital funding source. It would be of little surprise that dollars from Al-Shabaab's poaching networks played a part in the devastating Westgate attacks. Recent insurgencies in Mali, Chad, Central African Republic and Somalia have all indicated transnational, fluid criminal or terrorist networks. In short, the poaching trade must be seen in a similar light. It is part of a complex international criminal trade that extends way beyond single opportunists that roam the continent's great Game Reserves.

This crisis therefore requires vision from African governments in conjunction with wider global co-operation in stymying these organised criminal networks. The securing of borders and expansion of security services must reflect the sophisticated nature of these networks. Without this regional and international co-operation, porous borders will be exploited and the trade will continue to flourish. This is no time for tokenism.

This week's conference in London will hopefully see a rethink in how the international community faces up to this tragic upturn in the illegal wildlife trade. But this 21st century poaching crisis has a darker and more complex web behind it - it is fuelling dangerous insurgencies in Africa, distorting local economies, and giving international criminal gangs the funds to spread misery to parts of the world seemingly unconnected from the savannahs of East Africa, or the forests of the Congo.

This human cost should not be forgotten. Rather it should be central to any anti-poaching policy. If we do not change the conversation, this evil trade will only continue unabated. With any luck, an acknowledgement of the economic and security implications of this poaching crisis may help formulate a more nuanced response that will save Africa's great wildlife before it is too late.