It's been a busy few weeks for wildlife globally! At the very end of April, Kenya made a statement to the world that there was only one place for ivory - on an elephant. The way they made this statement was not new, but it certainly was a variant on a theme - by burning more than 100 tonnes of seized and recovered elephant tusks in a mass pyre - the biggest ivory burn to date. The 'street' value of the ivory - a cool $150 million.
Some criticised this, saying that this ivory could have been sold in controlled conditions and the money used for conservation, but Kenya stayed brave and remained sensible by not listening to this advice. Yes, money could be made by selling the ivory, and yes, technically, in an ideal world that money could have been used to buy equipment and staff to protect those elephants that remain. But, this is far too a simplistic model of supply and demand which has been tried and tested before, and failed!
Two previous stockpile sales in the late 80s and early 90s both followed this model, intending to 'flood the market', thus bringing down prices and reducing demand. The fact is though, that the precise opposite happened. Ivory stock was purchased then withheld and the market wasn't flooded in any way. What these controlled sales did was lead to increased prices and the sales not only gave legitimacy to the ownership of ivory, but also dramatically blurred the lines between legal and illegal ivory, a problem that all these years on still exists and continues to make enforcement nigh on impossible in many cases.
I always find this concept of selling illegal goods 'because they are worth a lot' fascinating, and note with interest that it only ever seems to relate to wildlife products such as elephant ivory or rhino horn. I've never heard UK Border Force suggest that they put the two tonnes of cocaine that they just seized onto eBay to help pay for some extra sniffer dogs, or to flood the market and put those nasty dealers out of business. Never once have I heard of customs officers auctioning off the haul of duty evaded cigarettes they've just found in the back of a lorry, because, well - the damage is done, they're here now. What happens to all these goods is that they are destroyed. They are destroyed because they are illegal and have been confiscated. They are the products of illicit trade - nothing more, nothing less.
So, it's with predictable dismay that we view some of the proposals for this year's CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora that regulates the trade in endangered species globally) conference in South Africa, that came out just the other week. Alongside some true positives like strengthening protection for lions, elephants, macaques and pangolins (an anteater that due to poaching for its scales and meat for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine could be extinct shortly after you learn to pronounce it), there is a proposal from Swaziland to allow for the establishment of a trade in rhino horn. This was widely expected to come from South Africa but for an unknown reason they got cold feet and didn't put the trade proposal in, leaving Swaziland pretty angry that now they look like the bad guy!
So, what's wrong with a trade in rhino horn? It's the same old story - you cannot control this kind of market. A parallel market where exactly the same goods are traded - some illegally and some legally - is a minefield. What's more, the rhino horn market is controlled through organised criminals and facilitated by corrupt officials, and it's a market where none of us knows its potential size. By that I mean would new people start to use rhino horn if it was legalised?
I guess first we need to look at rhino horn and why it is in demand. The desire for rhino horn stems mainly from Vietnam but also from other parts of South East Asia. Historically used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and more recently even purported to be a cure for cancer, the reasons for purchasing rhino horn have evolved and changed over time. It's now additionally used simply as a status symbol, an investment (after all, with one rhino being killed every three hours on average, it won't be long at this rate until the 25,000 or so remaining could be gone for good), and also as a rich kids' party drug and hangover cure. And, here's the twist - it is just keratin, so not too different to chewing your own fingernails.
The age old arguments of money back into conservation also don't really stack up. This proposal has come about following years and years of lobbying from private rhino owners (PROs), who own approximately 25% of all of South Africa's rhinos. They are sitting on millions and millions of pounds worth of stockpiles. These are privately owned and whilst the proposed system would inevitably have some kind of duty on it, the chances of this going back into conservation seem small, and the consequences of the experiment seem crazy.
It's easy to preach and sometimes it seems daunting how much needs to be done to help save our endangered wildlife in the face of deadly threats. But there are steps we can all take. We should take great care when making decisions that could have an impact on animals like this, such as choosing carefully where and how we travel. Similarly, simple things like not being seduced by the 'when in Rome mantra' of trying exotic meats when you're away - they could likely be wild or cruelly caught and chances are that the tourist industry is propping up their demand. Don't pose with that photo prop animal, and yes, I know that a slow loris or a macaque is fairly unique and very cute, but they are way more beautiful in the wild, free from disease, cruelty and chains. And lastly, please don't ever, ever, buy ivory. It looks far better on an elephant than a mantelpiece.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) works extensively across China and other consumer countries to reduce demand for ivory and illegal wildlife products. We also work on the ground in range countries to protect elephants, other threatened species and their habitats, as well as with decision-makers to push for greater enforcement and deterrents against elephant poaching and other wildlife trade.
This September, let's hope countries come together at CITES to do all they can to protect our vulnerable wildlife for future generations.