Destroying Illegal Ivory: Does it Really Save the Elephants?

Fagjun | Published 2017-09-03 10:11

Ivory trade, East Africa, Late 1800s


In a number of countries, destroying illegal ivory products has been a way to combat the illegal ivory trade. It sends a strong message to poachers, ivory traders, and buyers alike: look how worthless all this is. Ivory is valuable only when it is attached to a living creature.


The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has scheduled a public destruction of two tons of confiscated ivory in New York's Central Park for August 3. Just this past July 26, two antiques dealers in Manhattan pleaded guilty for trying to sell illegal ivory worth $4.5 million. Some of the ivory from the back room of their antique shop will undoubtedly be among ivory products to be crushed in Central Park.


Other countries like China, France, and Kenya have also organized their own public ivory destruction events. In fact, Kenya burned a total of 105 tons of illegal ivory last year.


The question, however, is whether or not these public spectacles send the message they actually mean to send.


Symbolism and Show of Force

105 tons of ivory burned in Kenyab [Photo by Mwangi Kirubi]


The idea is that destroying ivory products—jewelry, trinkets, statues, and the like—will eventually lead to countries banning the ivory trade and discouraging people to buy ivory. However, it's not as simple or straightforward as it may seem. Opinions vary on whether or not destroying illegal ivory is effective. Wildlife Watch has asked different experts from different fields for insight into the practice.


From an economic point of view, destroying ivory makes sense—so says economist Ross Harvey. Ivory shouldn't have value, unless it's on a living animal. Thus, destroying ivory signals to the world that ivory isn't and shouldn't be for sale. If you buy ivory, you're essentially spending a lot of money on something worthless.


Experts from other fields agree. Li Zhang, ecology professor at Beijing Normal University, hopes that eventually, countries will do what's necessary to shut down their domestic ivory trade. Wildlife trade researcher Lucy Vigne adds that it's also important to change the viewpoints of the main consumers of ivory. After all, if there are no customers, there is no trade. However, Vigne claims, the public spectacle of destroying ivory may not be what saves the elephants. So what will?


The Effects of Destroying Illegal Ivory


Vigne and other experts stress that stronger law enforcement and improved protection of elephants are the key to ending the illegal ivory trade. Conservation economist Michael 't Sas-Rolfes points out that there have been numerous ivory destruction events in the past, but poaching still remains. Destroying ivory also doesn't generate funding for parks that protect and conserve elephants.


Ivory products may contain forensic data as well, as Matthew Lewis, director of conservation for Safari Club International Foundation, points out. The products may have information that courts can use to prosecute poachers. Other experts also point out that destroying ivory may make ivory products seem scarce, and therefore create more demand for them.


In any case, it seems that destroying illegal ivory will be a practice that won't end any time soon. Hopefully, it'll prove to be actually instrumental in ending the illegal ivory trade.

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