Protect elephants

Richard E. Leakey
argues that allowing any trade in ivory will increase the killing of elephants

Elephants and ivory are powerful ingredients in any contemporary debate about conservation. There are sound arguments from several perspectives and nobody anywhere suggests that elephants should be allowed to become extinct. Those who press the concept of sustainable utilization are as sure that theirs is the true path to the best future for elephants as are those who promote total protection and no management. Clearly it is more complex than this, and there is a vast number of considerations that must be taken into account.

The Kenyan position reflects a broad consensus that elephants should not be killed for the commercial use of their ivory. This position holds irrespective of whether the killing is legal or illegal: the purpose, if there is one, of the elephants’ death should be quite separate from the prospect of using the death for financial gains. I make this distinction because I believe that the central issue for discussion should not be confined to trade or not to trade. Let us reflect upon the effects of trade in the context of the realities of conservation and wildlife management within the range of states of the world’s remaining elephants.

The patterns of human poverty and the related corruption of public officials in most elephant range states are directly relevant. Where an activity offers immediate financial gains realizable at relatively low risk, the control and sustainability of that activity is problematic to say the least, particularly where the activity takes place in the bush. The benefits to middlemen or links in the supply line are too attractive to be easily stopped by any authority operating within very limited budgets.

Serious doubts
If it were possible to maintain sufficient security on the ground in some countries to guarantee the safety of elephants, some progress would be made, but this alone would not be enough. The same elephant security would need to be extended throughout the range of the elephant so that the open, unguarded international or state borders would not be used to move ivory that was illegal.

An additional factor that must be dealt with is the corruption of the officials who are charged with regulating exports. It is all too easy to obtain false documents or official documents that are deliberately falsified. Sadly this problem is not confined to the export end of the process, and similar corrupt practices are known to thrive in the importer countries. Can all of these loopholes be plugged? We in Kenya have experience that leads us to seriously doubt the veracity of claims that a trade in ivory at this time can be effectively monitored, leave alone sustainably managed.
The financial sacrifice of giving up ivory sales of which we hear so much is in fact negligible

There is an argument that we have all heard for many years which proposes that it is not fair to penalize nations that have a good record in conservation. The notion of anyone paying a penalty for being ‘good’ is surely a narrow, rather simplistic view. Is the reopening of trade and the probability that this has encouraged illegal killings of elephants fair to countries such as Kenya or India which happen also to be good conservationist nations? The point that I would make is to call for common action where the better-off help those who are less able. Surely this is a valid way forward. The financial sacrifice of giving up ivory sales of which we hear so much is in fact negligible if set against other items in any national budget. The loss of $3 million on revenue from ivory sales every few years seems a lot, but compare that to expenditures in the area of armaments and military hardware and it becomes trivial. If a government seriously wants to secure the survival of its elephants, the loss of revenues from suspending ivory sales is hardly an obstacle. Arguments that depend simply upon principle without reference to the reality of the actual situation are all too common, but I believe that they are at best disingenuous.

Diminishing resources
There is evidence that the number of elephants being killed for their ivory is on the increase. This upward trend in the data is not confined to one region: it appears to be true in southern, eastern, central and western African elephant range states. Economic data from all these areas point clearly to the diminishing public sector resources which are so essential to strengthening all the potential weak points in the system. It is not as simple as selling ivory in country ‘X’ to pay for conservation in that country. It is the customs service, the judiciary, the administration in that country and other countries that are providing the opportunities for an illicit trade in ivory.

Our concern in Kenya is not trade; our worry is the killing of elephants for that trade. If there is no trade anywhere, we believe there will be a dramatic decline in the number of elephants that are killed illegally. In time, probably long after our time, it would be good to be able to ‘feel’ ivory in one’s grip as the commodity becomes available from natural deaths and specific control measures. Once we have evidence that elephants are not being killed for their ivory, nobody can seriously object to the commercial sale or trade of ivory. In Kenya, this is the position that we hope others will join  

Dr. Richard E. Leakey, former Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, is Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Public Service, Government of Kenya.

PHOTOGRAPH: Andrea M. Heine/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Critical crossroads | Genetically engineered crops... | Sustainable solutions | Protect elephants | Getting it together | CITES: 2000 and beyond | At a glance | Competition | Interpol alert | Deep waters, high stakes | Tall trees and bottom lines | Globalizing solutions | Global Biodiversity... | Walking on the wild side... | Voices of the Earth | Millennium massacre

Complementary articles in other issues:
D. J. de Villiers: Beyond attractive destinations (Tourism) 1999
Shaun Mann: Uganda’s opportunity (Tourism) 1999