Zero Sum Game? – The Ivory Trade in Africa

Are Wildlife Conservation and Economic Development a Zero Sum Game: A Report on the Ivory Trade in Africa


After over a decade of progress toward the goal of restoring the elephant from the brink of extinction, the poaching of elephants has once again become a problem threatening the extinction of the largest of the world’s land mammals. The causes of this shift are understandably economic.  The elephants’ ivory is still highly valued around the world and consumers are willing to spend a premium to purchase it.  As most of the world’s suppliers are in fact impoverished nations the motivation to meet this demand remains quite strong.  But the problem remains, are the goals of wildlife preservation and economic gain hopelessly opposed?  Is it possible to reconcile the goals of wildlife preservation and economic profit?

The causes of this shift are understandably economic

The market for African ivory is an ancient one. Rulers and potentates both within and outside Africa have used elephant tusks to craft all kinds of prestige and luxury items (such as jewelry, religious and secular art objects, piano keys, dice, and billiard balls) for thousands of years.  However it’s only in the last 200 years that the trade in ivory has threatened the survival of an entire species. Since 1800 the population of Africa’s elephants has declined from an estimated 26 million to only 1 million in 2012.
The process of hunting elephants is a brutal one.  The animals are captured using wire snares that can catch entire herds as well as other forms of wildlife.  They are then killed using automatic rifles and the tusks are removed using chainsaws or axes.  According to some reports as many as 8% of Africa’s entire elephant population is killed each year by poachers that adds up to about 36,000 elephants per year and as noted above elephant tusks are expensive.

According to one report a single large 1.5 m tusk was on sale in Kinshasa for $10,000.

Who, Where and Why?

As the environmental toll of this totally legal trade was recognized, NGOs in 1989 managed to secure international agreements declaring the hunting of elephants for their tusks illegal under the rules of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  In the wake of this decision markets dried up for ivory in most countries and despite vehement opposition, only a small number of African suppliers elected to continue the trade.
CITES, more fully known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, was implemented in 1973 with the goal to prevent the extinction of entire species by regulating international commerce in plant and animal goods. CITES is legally binding on all 80 member states who are obligated to write and enforce laws to achieve the goal of the convention with the financing for enforcement generally coming from the profits of the trade in wildlife products.
Since the CITES ban, the major national suppliers and consumers are known as the “gang of eight” countries, with Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, the major suppliers, China and Thailand, the major consumers and Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines important as middlemen in the international transportation of ivory. But African ivory suppliers are not limited to those three countries as there is Ivory production from all over southern and central Africa.  In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, local conservationists estimate the elephant population has suffered steep declines in recent years and is now below 20,000. At the capital, Kinshasa, reporters found illegal ivory for sale quite openly at local markets and the ivory from over 200 elephants per day was seen available for purchase.

African Elephant

African Elephant by Scott Michaels.

East Africa appears to be important both as a supplier and as a major transshipment center of African ivory bound for China.  According to law enforcement as much as 85% of the ivory seized from around the world is sourced from or passed by way of East Africa to international markets and African law enforcement authorities have arrested many Chinese couriers in East African ports.

The Economic Truth

So what accounts for the ongoing trafficking in ivory in spite of the world-wide ban and the heightened risk to anyone who engages in it? The reason is best revealed in the economic circumstances of the supplier countries.  In 2011 the collective GDP of the three countries that supply most of the African ivory to the world market was $75 billion for a total collective population of 122 million.  This works out to an average per capita GDP for each of these countries of $808 (Kenya), $532 (Tanzania) and $487 (Uganda).  As a point of comparison the average GDP per capita for three of the world’s top four economies is $48,112 (United States), $45,903 (Japan) and $44,060 (Germany).  The total population of Japan alone is 125 million. So the combined economies of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are quite small in comparison.
Africa as a continent relies heavily on raw materials and wildlife products for its exports, as it has for centuries and those goods it can sell on the world market have always been the lower value added commodities rather than higher value added manufactured goods.  The continent’s reliance on such items to earn foreign exchange is creating a conflict with the conservation community that does not appear to have an easy resolution.
These economic problems could have been mitigated had most African countries managed to chart a more successful course in economic development.  But since independence African countries continue to experience the paradoxical problem of “growth without development.” Economists, even those studying developed economies, are coming to acknowledge that growth and development are two separate outcomes and that it has become a habit to confuse the two when reporting economic figures such as gross domestic product and personal income per capita.  Annual increases in those measures appears to disguise the reality of stagnating incomes and economies and worsening social, political and economic conditions when measures like poverty, disease, illiteracy, malnutrition,  unemployment,  and infrastructure development are used instead.
In a recent assessment of one of the wealthiest nations in Africa, the Guardian reported that:

“The poverty index in Nigeria is 60 per cent (placing the country 156th out of 187 countries), current exchange rate of the naira to the dollar is N162…inflation stands at 12.7 per cent from 10.3 per cent level in 2011. The lending rate is 22 per cent, unemployment 37 per cent (over 40 million Nigerians jobless), domestic debt is N5.6 trillion, foreign debt $5.9 billion…”

The reasons why modern African economies grow but don’t develop and are reliant on highly volatile commodities after centuries of participation in the world economy are complex.  It’s important to consider the roles of economic mismanagement, colonialism, imperialism, and neo-colonialism in modern Africa’s ongoing lack of development. In the case of Nigeria some economists have pointed out that corruption, political instability and poor implementation of development goals are the main causes. This suggests the solution to Africa’s long-term problems is one of improving the quality and stability of political and economic management.

A Long Term Solution?

For the main question of the conflict between economic need and wildlife conservation, the solution appears to be in the sustainability model of development.  This model is meant to maintain resource stability without totally eradicating it.  Many observers have pointed out that an outright ban is not a useful solution and may accelerate the decline of plant and animal species.  For instance, after a ban on rhinoceros horn in the mid-1970s the African rhino population declined from 15000 to 3000.  While reports indicate 2011 had the highest number of seizures of African ivory by policing authorities in over 20 years. But even a sustainable model has its risks as the demand for ivory may lead to relaxing regulations so much that poaching once again threatens to push elephants into extinction.

Post a comment

%d bloggers like this: