Report’s alarm: Legalize ivory to save elephants

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When authorities arrested a pair of New York jewelers this year with a combined $2 million in contraband from African traders, they found no gold nuggets, no exotic gems, not one “blood diamond.”

Instead, the smuggled goods included more than a ton’s worth of carved animal figurines and ornaments — all made from the illicit trade of elephant ivory.

Despite a worldwide ban on ivory trading in 1989 to curb rampant elephant poaching, the demand for these acclaimed trinkets is reaching new heights, driving the illegal behavior of organizations and sellers like the jewelers, who were convicted two weeks ago and slapped with fines of $55,000 between them.

With more than 24 tons of illegal ivory seized around the globe in 2011 — an annual record — international authorities are weighing a surprising new approach to curbing the trade: making it legal again.

One of the top proposals at a round of meetings this week in Geneva has been to create an exception to the ivory ban and partially open trade.

A report commissioned by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), the group that spearheaded the ivory ban 22 years ago, suggests creating a centralized system in Africa to sell ivory seized from poachers or from elephants that die from natural causes. Countries would use the revenue to prevent poaching.

“It would not be the aim of the [system] to promote the killing of elephants for trade in ivory. The de facto management situation in many range states is that elephants are being exploited illegally for their ivory,” the report said. “It seems entirely beneficial for conservation that the value of this ivory should be reinvested in the areas where it originated.”

In addition to raising revenue to fund conservation programs, legalization advocates say, introducing legal ivory at a lower price than its illegal counterpart would drop the overall market rate and thus decrease the incentive for poaching elephants.

Opponents say legalization won’t do enough, even if it succeeds in lowering the price, and that authorities should seek more funds to enforce the existing blanket ban.

“The rate of poaching is astronomical right now; it’s extremely naive to think that legal sales are going to change that,” said Samuel Wasser, a professor of biology at the University of Washington. “This is transnational organized crime. What we really need are unified law enforcement agencies.”

Disputed case studies

CITES temporarily legalized trade twice in the past, with one-time sales of stockpiled ivory in 1992 and 2008.

The results were mixed. Prices were reduced after the 1992 sale but increased drastically after the one in 2008.

The CITES report attributes the 2008 failure to white-hot demand for ivory in countries such as China and Thailand outrunning the effects of the sale.

Opponents of ivory trade attribute the 1992 sale’s success to reduced demand immediately after the 1989 ban, not the sale itself. Aside from legal trade’s minor economic impact, several analysts say, legalization harms the situation because it would encourage consumption of ivory overall as something morally legitimate and would encourage elephant-killing by promising illicit traders a sure market.

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