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.
"It's not the sales themselves that cause the problem; it's the petitions to sell," Mr. Wasser said. "Whenever there is word out that there is going to be a legal sale, you see a huge increase in poaching because [criminals] figure there is an opportunity to smuggle contraband into the sale."
However, the CITES report suggests crime networks ultimately would lose customers to a legalized system on which markets could rely, and claims it would achieve better results than the two previous sales.
"The practice of selling ivory stockpiles at lengthy, irregular intervals departs from normal commercial practices," the report said. "Because the supply of legal ivory is uncertain, it provides no incentives to ivory traders to confine their trade to legally available ivory."
The response in Geneva
The notion of a legal trade system has garnered scrutiny this week in Geneva, where several officials criticized the report for not prioritizing needs for improved enforcement in China and better laws in Thailand.
Officials said Thailand's ivory ban has loopholes so large that it amounts to no legislation at all, and noted that most stores are not held accountable for selling ivory once it enters the country.
Legalizing trade would not discourage sending illicit ivory to Thailand because it would remain a low-risk, high-reward trade.
"The fact is that there's no reason on the face of it why trade from Central Africa to Thailand would stop," said Colman O'Criodain, a World Wildlife Fund policy adviser attending the meetings in Switzerland.
Others emphasize the need for better infrastructure in Africa to seize contraband ivory before it is shipped. Although government corruption remains a problem, Mr. Wasser said, this is a much more affordable way to regulate ivory trade.
"Imagine what you're paying the law enforcement here compared to those countries," he said. "We need to get these countries back into policing the trade, and all that really requires is vehicles, guns and bullets — that's it."
Mr. Wasser also battles the illicit trade at the other end of the process by operating a unique laboratory that matches elephant DNA from large ivory seizures — including the 1 ton haul in New York — to a database that can trace the elephant's country.
CITES will not reach a decision this week on ivory trade because any results in Geneva will need to be approved at a larger convention in March. Coincidently, Thailand will host.
Still, the prospect of a legalized trade system generated ample discussion during the first days of the conference, and may remain a possibility. In the report, authors defended the idea as merely a starting point, not an ironclad solution.
"It contained some useful information and ideas, [but] it was never going to win over the middle ground in the ivory debate," Mr. O'Criodain said. "It has already been agreed that the issue will be sent back."
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