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Debate: Ivory trading

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Should the present international ban on trading elephant ivory be lifted?

Background and context

The African Elephant population has decreased from about 1.2 million in 1981 to approximately 770 000 in 1988 to about 620 000 in 1995, largely as a result of poaching to supply the international ivory trade. In 1986 ivory trading was banned by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In 1997 CITES allowed Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia to sell ivory stockpiled by their governments’ environmental agencies to Japan, the centre of international demand for ivory, as a one-off measure. In 2000, South Africa and other southern African states argued unsuccessfully at the CITES convention in Nairobi for the ban on ivory sales to be more generally relaxed. This debate approaches whether or not the 1986 ivory trading ban should be lifted?[1]

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Sentient beings: Are elephants not sentient? Even if they are, should it still be ok to kill them for their ivory?

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Yes

  • Why should human-likeness matter? Shouldn't all animals be considered part of a unified animal kingdom? Shouldn't all creatures in this world be respected equally? Why give some animals special priviledges because they are more like humans? Wouldn't that be egotistical on the part of humans?[2]
  • Defining sentience is impossible, making it impossible to determine which animals deserve rights or protection: Sentience refers to an animals ability to utilize their sensory organs in such a way that they can "feel" or "perceive subjectively". This is impossible to define accurately. How can there be a specific threshold that, once crossed, the animal snaps into a state of "sentience". This difficulty makes any law based on "sentience" untenable.[3]
  • Even if we could define sentience, how human-like would an animal need to be to warrant protection: The problem with protecting animals on the basis of their sentience or their human-likeness is that it is nearly impossible to define a threshold for legal purposes. How sentient or human-like would an animal need to be before it would warrant our offering of rights or protections? Creating a threshold would be incredibly difficult, and risk being arbitrary, and thus it would be unfit for being made into law.[4]
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No

  • Elephants are sentient beings, and are too similar to humans to be subject to killing: Some research indicates that elephants are sentient beings that should not be subject to killing. There is a common understanding that it is unethical for humans to kill other sentient beings. As such it is unethical to kill them for the harvest of ivory. This forecloses the option of lifting the UN ban on ivory trading.[5]
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Effectiveness of ban: Is the ban on ivory trading ineffective and possibly actually harmful to elephant populations? Does it actually encourage black market trading?

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Yes

  • An ivory trading ban actually encourages illegal trading by raising the price of ivory. A trading ban does not choke off demand for the ivory, but instead raises the price to exorbitant levels, encouraging poaching. Demand since 1989 has been depressed by Japan’s economic problems, from which it is now emerging, while China’s growing prosperity will create a new market, so there are likely to be greater profits to be made in the future from the illegal trade. Legitimate, regulated sales would undercut the illegal market and drive the poachers out of business.[6]
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No

  • The 1986 ban has reduced demand for ivory: At present demand for ivory is low and shrinking, and prices are actually lower than before 1989. Lifting the trading ban would renew interest in ivory artefacts and increase the size of the market for them, raising their price. This will ensure there is always a long-term threat to elephants from man, and encourage poaching to continue. In any case, incomes in Africa are so small that even a large reduction in the price of ivory would fail to affect the motivation of poachers.[7]
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Elephant populations: Have elephant populations revived as a result of the ban, and is this a reason to relax or lift the ban?

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Yes

  • Elephant populations have revived, making it possible to lift the ban: The elephant populations of southern African states are growing rapidly, placing a strain upon the resources of the national parks in which they live. This has necessitated culls with the result that government environment agencies have built up large stockpiles of ivory (also acquired from animals that died naturally), which they are currently unable to sell. Relaxing the CITES ban on trading ivory, subject to careful regulation, would bring much needed cash to the environmental programmes of these impoverished countries, helping them to safeguard the long-term survival of African elephants.[8]
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No

  • Increases in elephant populations are only occurring in some places, making the UN ban on ivory trading still relevant: Although elephant populations in southern Africa are viable and increasing, this is not the case elsewhere in Africa, nor is it true of the wild Asian elephant populations of South Asia. No test can reveal where worked ivory originated, nor which species it was from, so lifting the trading ban would make it easy for poachers everywhere to sell ivory, increasing their profits and their motivation to kill more elephants. The corruption widespread in Africa and parts of Asia would make it easy for poachers to mask the illegal origins of their ivory, passing it off as legitimate.[9]
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Government trading: Should ivory that is confiscated or obtained from culls and stored by governments be open for sale?

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Yes

  • Governments should be able to sell the ivory they confiscate in order to fund their expensive regulation of ivory trading: Ivory is expensive to obtain (through culls or monitoring of very elderly beasts) and store, and degrades over time. It is therefore sensible to allow its sale in order to recoup these expenses and to do so on a permanent, controlled basis, rather than through one-off schemes such as the 1999 sale to Japan. Poaching has been effectively eliminated in southern Africa through efficient game park management and the development of game tourism, which gives local peoples an incentive to protect wildlife as a long-term economic resource. For this approach to be sustained the parks must generate greater income from their elephant populations; realistically, this can only be done through the sale of stockpiled ivory. If other countries have a problem with poaching, they should follow the example of e.g. South Africa and Botswana, rather than seeking to harm the successful conservancy programmes in those states.[10]
  • "The experimental export of raw ivory in 1999 from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe (conducted under rigorous CITES supervision) was successful in all respects. and took place under intense international scrutiny. It can categorically be stated that no ivory, other than the registered stocks, was exported to Japan." South African government proposal to CITES, 2000.[11]
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No

  • Storage costs and depreciation are only problems if ivory is stored in the hope of eventual sale. Kenya’s game conservancy burns the ivory it obtains from culls or confiscates from poachers, avoiding both of these problems and showing its commitment to ending all possibility of renewed trade.[12]
  • The 1999 relaxation of CITES controls coincided with a fivefold upsurge in poaching in Kenya and a similar increase in India, as criminals assumed that legal sales would soon be allowed once again.[13]

See also

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