To save the elephants, we must have a plan for peaceful co-existence

Gavin Edwards says destroying illegal ivory alone won't stop the slaughter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 12:43pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 February, 2014, 2:30am

Hong Kong's decision to destroy a stockpile of 28 tonnes of confiscated ivory is an excellent Lunar New Year gift to Africa's long-suffering elephants. It sends a clear signal to smugglers that the slaughter of elephants and the illegal trade in their tusks will not be tolerated. And it underlines the need for consumers to avoid buying ivory.

Calls from some quarters in Hong Kong to sell the ivory were thankfully ignored and, in any case, verged on the absurd. Selling seized ivory makes about as much sense as selling seized drugs or weapons. If a government becomes a retailer of illegal ivory, it sends a very mixed message to the public. It may also hinder the cultural changes needed to stem the demand for ivory.

Advocates for keeping ivory under lock and key claim these stocks help regulate the price of ivory. But this does not add up. The confiscated ivory is "off" the market, hence it should have zero effect on the market price. Meanwhile, any prolonged storage of the ivory is a management and financial burden for government as well as a security risk.

One key step the government should take before it begins destroying the stockpile is to organise a transparent and independent audit of the ivory, to create an inventory that will provide an assurance that the ivory does not find its way back into illegal markets.

Today, there are some 500,000 African elephants left. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, some 22,000 were killed illegally in Africa in 2012. Poaching is not the only threat - habitat destruction and a changing climate place further stress on their populations and habitats.

So, while the destruction of ivory is an important step forward, other approaches are needed to avert a crisis. In essence, this boils down to a three-part strategy: improved anti-poaching measures in elephant-range countries; intelligence-led law enforcement efforts to break trafficking chains; and, approaches to reducing demand and catalysing lasting changes in consumer behaviour.

Our WWF colleagues in Africa are working on a number of complementary initiatives, such as training wildlife managers and local communities to use modern methods and tools to mitigate human-elephant conflicts. Over the long term, we aim to ensure proper land-use planning that gives elephants space for seasonal movements, combined with fences to protect crops and infrastructure.

Protection of habitats is critical, and our colleagues are working to secure a future beyond protected areas for elephants.

Strengthening anti-poaching initiatives is also key to creating a future for Africa's elephants, and by training and equipping rangers, we hope to strengthen the fight against wildlife crime.

Here in Asia, elephants are also under threat, with the borders of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam being a poaching hot spot. We train, equip and support local staff, enabling them to patrol protected areas and assess elephant distribution and numbers. We are working hard in Laos to conserve the largest elephant population in Indochina.

As the largest land mammals on this planet, elephants help maintain forest and savanna ecosystems for other species and are integrally tied to the rich biodiversity of Africa. A world where a few people own ivory carvings, chopsticks and mahjong tiles, but where elephants are driven to extinction, would be a shocking indictment of humanity's relationship to planet earth.

Thankfully, this step by the Hong Kong government moves us in a more positive direction, towards a world where humans can live in harmony with nature, and a world where elephants can thrive.

Gavin Edwards is conservation director at WWF-Hong Kong