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Destroying Ivory to Save Elephants: Is it Working?

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Seized items for Times Square Ivory Crush by Bernard Starr

Our planet is facing unprecedented mass extinctions of species. And we humans are the culprits. A just released study (June 19, 2015) reveals that "477 vertebrates have gone extinct since 1900, rather than the nine that would be expected at natural rates." And the loss of vertebrates "was far higher than in the last five mass extinctions." The current accelerated rate of extinctions is so great that the authors of the study concluded that we are entering the sixth mass extinction.

It's apt that this grim report was released on the day of the Times Square "ivory crush," a media event to publicize the tragedy of the vanishing elephant population in Africa and Asia. Elephants could be extinct as early as 2025 warns Kenya's Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, if the present rate of poaching for the ivory trade continues. Over the past decade 75 percent of African forest elephants have been slaughtered.

At the Times Square ivory crush speeches by officials of the Department of the Interior, The Fish and Wildlife Service, Customs and Border Protection, Wildlife Conservation Society, and several local politicians decried the sad statistics on the rate of elephant kills. All declared their determination to end the poaching of elephants for their marketable ivory tusks. Their war cry has become a mantra to mobilize public and government attention and international action: "In crushing the ivory we are crushing the ivory market." Then to prove that this dramatic event was an attention grabber and crowd pleaser, an enthusiastic cheer went up as the one-ton collection of seized ivory objects was loaded onto a conveyor belt that fed the ivory into a gravel crushing machine. As the pulverized ivory appeared on the exit conveyor belt the cheers and applause escalated to a crescendo.

Caught up in the enthusiasm, I cheered as well. At the same time I could not deny the gnawing feeling that there was something disturbing about this event. I could not shake the thought that destruction to stop destruction is arguable.

Conveyor to the Crush by WCS

But I decided that if the ivory crush would indeed deliver a fatal blow to the ivory trade, or even a significant disruption, then destroying these confiscated objects would be a worthwhile sacrifice.

However, when I examined the effect of earlier crushes, I wondered.

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On November 14, 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed six tons of elephant ivory stored at its facility in Denver Colorado. During that year The Wildlife Conservation Society announced that 35,000 elephants were killed, a rate of 96 every day. Ironically, at the Times Square crush on June 19, 2015 a poster reported the same number still being killed each day.

96 Elephants Killed Every Day says WCS by Bernard Starr

The U.S. ivory crushes are not the only ones. Six tons of seized ivory was crushed in China on January 6, 2014. Hong Kong began pulverizing twenty-eight tons of ivory figurines, tusks, and other objects, also in 2014. And other crushes of ivory were carried out over the last 24 months in Belgium, Chad, SAR, Czech Republic, Gabon, France and the Philippines, according to the National Geographic. In fact, since 1989 thirteen countries have destroyed 150 tons (three hundred thousand pounds) of ivory. Yet, the high kill rate of elephants continues, as we march ever closer to elephant extinction.

Poachers and unscrupulous marketers and buyers of ivory apparently have not been thwarted by the destruction of ivory, as evidenced by the continuing robust market for ivory after the massive crushes. And why would they be? From the perspective of the buyer, the objects are gone, never to be returned. Why would consumers care if their seized objects, some fine art works, were destroyed, warehoused, or the better pieces given to museums with the proviso that they could never be sold or traded. More importantly, none of those outcomes would likely slow the marketing of ivory.

Is it possible that the crushes might even be counterproductive? The difficulty of arousing public attention to environmental issues in these stressful financial times is well known. One survey reported that "public concern for environmental issues has reached a twenty year low." In that context, bold pronouncements that a crush will crush the ivory trade could promote even greater complacency: "Well, they solved that one--I don't have to be concerned anymore."

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And the destruction of ivory without stiff enforced sanctions to stop the trade could raise the value of ivory and thus increase the elephant kill rate, as suggested in a 2013 article in Slate: "By destroying the ivory, you create even more ivory scarcity and increase the incentives for future poaching." In accord with that view, the South China Morning Post reported that over the decade ending in 2013 the price of ivory in Hong Kong rose fifty-fold. And according to Save the Elephants organization, the three fold price rise of ivory in China between 2010 and 2014 from $750 per kilogram to $2,100 per kilogram (1 kg=2.2 lbs) "is driving a wave of killing of elephants across Africa that shows little sign of abating."

More disturbing, in January 2015 the magazine Conservation published by the University of Washington, sounded an alarm that the price of ivory on the international market has risen to $3,000 per kilogram. Conservation suspects that "some folks are acting as speculators, building up stockpiles of illegal ivory, expecting the price to go even higher once the animals become extinct. These are people who have no interest in securing a sustainable future for ivory; they envision a hefty payday once the wild source for ivory disappears."

Unfortunately, If there is a buck to be made, no matter what the cost to civilization, there is no shortage of people who will do it. Terrorists, a major source behind the ivory trade (tusks for guns), will not stop poaching regardless of threats, as long as there is a market. The same goes for middle men, except they could be stopped or curtailed if strong sanctions were enforced. Another source of poaching poses a more formidable conundrum. Sanctions will not deter desperate poor people who will continue to poach to stave off hunger and starvation for themselves and their families---yes, poaching is also a poverty issue that governments must address. It also doesn't help the cause of protecting endangered species when an African leader like President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe celebrates his birthday by serving elephant meat to his guests.

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Bernard Starr, PhD, is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College) where he directed a graduate program in gerontology and taught developmental psychology in the School of Education. He is also the main United (more...)

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