Is an international trade ban the best approach?
Between 1990 and 2007, studies suggest that the ban helped to halt the decline in the overall population of African elephants, which then began to recover. However, elephant poaching for ivory subsequently increased to unprecedented levels. This has led some to question whether an international trade ban is the best approach.
An alternative approach proposed is to establish regulated legal trade, with ivory supplied from natural elephant deaths to satisfy demand and with proceeds from sales contributing much-needed funds to elephant conservation.
Indeed, some argue that trade bans can be detrimental, serving to drive up prices by restricting supply and in turn increasing incentives to poach, thereby handing a monopoly on commerce to the black market and organised criminals with the capacity to overcome enforcement efforts.
However, others think that supply and demand could change in response to legislation and result in higher poaching levels under a legal trade scenario.
This could either be because legal trade ‘legitimises’ ivory demand and boosts consumption to a level that cannot be satisfied sustainably (indeed, a recent study predicts that a sustainable, legitimate yield of ivory would be much too low to satisfy even existing demand), or because legal trade in ivory provides a cover for illegal trafficking, reducing the risk of detection.
Governance and corruption are big challenges for regulation
A controlled legal trade would require robust controls to ensure that ivory from illegally killed elephants are not laundered through the legal market; once this has happened, it is very difficult to differentiate between legal and illegal ivory.
The difficulty is that countries frequently implicated in ivory trafficking also tend to rank high for corruption. Ivory is high value whilst those responsible for enforcing wildlife laws are often under-resourced and poorly paid.
Many argue that reliable global systems for controlled legal ivory trade are not currently feasible due to poor governance, corruption and the involvement of organised crime. Others argue that both legal trade and trade bans equally vulnerable to the impacts of corruption.
A global movement towards closing legal domestic ivory markets
There is an increasing body of evidence suggesting that legal supply is fuelling demand and providing cover for illegal trade. Many conservation organisations, including Fauna & Flora, therefore argue for the closure of domestic markets. This will make the law clearer cut and law enforcement more straightforward, while also making it easier to reduce demand amongst consumers.