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Is Burning Ivory Helping or Hurting Elephants?

The Sydney Morning Herald

Burning ivory is a growing trend aimed at discouraging elephant poaching, but some experts say the method could actually be hurting conservation efforts.

The burning of ivory stockpiles, seized from illegal poachers and black market traffickers seems, at first glance, to be a positive thing. It's a high-profile event that brings much-needed attention to the continuing problem of elephant poaching, attracting funding while ensuring that ivory cannot reenter the black market.

An ivory burn by Kenya in 1989 is commonly credited for leading to an international ban on ivory trade the same year, and the dramatic technique has been implemented by a number of countries since.

But many fear ivory burning is an empty gesture, as there is little evidence to support that it helps with saving the world's endangered African elephants, and with some even claiming it may be making things worse.

For starters, conservationists question why ivory is stockpiled to begin with. Ivory holds a greater black market value per ounce than gold or cocaine. Assembling large quantities of it in a central location is an irresistible target for criminality and corruption, and these stockpiles are risky and expensive to guard. These stockpiles often go missing, suggesting some shady government dealings.

Advocates of ivory burns say they reduce supply, robbing traffickers of the income they would have received. But detractors say burning ivory in mass quantities in the public eye only suggests that there's now less of it, and it's more valuable as a result, driving up demand. And like human teeth, ivory is naturally fire-resistant, meaning even ivory subjected to a burn has the potential to fall back into smuggler's hands.

It's not a surprise that burning ivory is popular, as it has fewer pitfalls than the alternative - selling it. While some authorities have proposed pawning off wildlife parts to provide manpower, vehicles, and technology to protect wildlife, conservationists say that a legal market for ivory only gives smugglers an incentive to sell their illegal wares.

According to those opposed to ivory sales, selling more ivory would only reward buyers whose demand caused poaching in the first place. Conservationists have often ridiculed the idea, comparing it to a government selling narcotics to fund anti-drug programs. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates ivory sales, seems to treat these proposals on a case-by-case basis. Application for one-time sales of ivory stockpiles have been both rejected and approved in recent years.

So while it seems selling ivory does little to prevent elephant poaching, there's also no proof that ivory burning does anything either. Economists and conservationists have suggested tracking high-profile burns to see if they actually impact ivory demand and price. But pinpointing ivory burning as a possible cause is especially tricky, given the numerous influences on the market.

With little scientific backing, the burning of ivory appears more of a publicity stunt than a proven strategy at the moment. Those skeptical of ivory burns say governments must focus less on flash and more on substance and commit to backing up the promise they made by destroying ivory. That includes encouraging local communities to protect wildlife, discouraging demand, safeguarding elephants, and mercilessly cracking down on poachers and smuggling networks.

Essentially, the cost of obtaining ivory must be more than its worth for criminals who seek it. Ivory burns are an encouraging signs that governments worldwide are committed to saving elephants, but in order to smoke out poachers, they'll have to use more than fire.

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Is Burning Ivory Helping or Hurting Elephants?