All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1991

Elephants and Ivory

Elizabeth Larson, a staff writer at the Cato Institute, researched African elephants while studying at the National Journalism Center in the summer of 1990. She holds a-degree in English literature from Vassar College.

When government officials arrived in Lausanne, Switzerland, for the biannual meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in October 1989, they wanted to save Africa’s elephants from extinction. They voted to end the ivory trade. Unfortunately, an ivory trade ban may be as good as a death warrant for Africa’s elephants.

The delegates supporting the ivory trade ban argued that it would eliminate the ivory market. Without a market for ivory, they say, poachers would be out of business. But opponents of the ban maintain that banning ivory will simply create a black market for elephant products, encouraging poachers to find new ways to beat the system and profit from elephants.

Zimbabwe is taking a stand against the “made in Switzerland” solution to dwindling elephant populations by promoting trade in ivory. Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Namibia, and South Africa have joined Zimbabwe’s elephant management program, which has a 10-year record of success. Banning ivory is the surest road to extinction for the African elephant, argue leaders in those countries. They believe the villagers can do more to protect the elephants and ensure the longevity of the species than costly centralized government programs can.

If statistics are any indication, the communal management programs in those countries are succeeding—the numbers of elephants in those countries have increased 40 percent in the last decade.

Much of the elephant debate centers on whether the species is really in danger of extinction. Elephant herds in many sections of Africa have been shrinking drastically. The total number of African elephants has fallen from 1.3 million in 1979 to 750,000 today—fact no one on either side of the ivory issue denies. Yet African elephants don’t live in a single gigantic herd. Hundreds of herds, each numbering several thousand elephants, are scattered across the African continent. While populations of some herds declined during the 1980s, pop ulations of other herds doubled.

“Zimbabwe does not consider the African elephant an endangered species,” Thomas Bvuma, an official at the Zimbabwean embassy, said in a July 1990 interview. Individual herds are in trouble, but the species as a whole is not about to disappear, he said. It can hardly be a coincidence that political borders, not natural ones, delineate which areas are experiencing rapidly dwindling elephant populations and which are not, Bvuma pointed out.

Simply totaling the population figures from all countries home to the African elephant can be misleading. In fact, elephant populations in Zimbabwe and surrounding regions are not only growing in numbers, but are doing so at close to the maximum 7-percent-a-year reproduction rate for the species. What are the Zimbabweans doing to eliminate poaching and ensure the survival of their elephants?

Agriculture in Zimbabwe has long been managed by the individual farmer—now the elephants are too. The ranks of Zimbabwe’s government are filled with Soviet military advisers, yet the country’s Marxist leader, Robert Mugabe, recognizes property rights in wildlife as well as in land. When Mugabe transferred the responsibility for elephants from government and wildlife agencies to the farmers and herdsmen on whose land the elephants live, the elephant population in Zimbabwe grew by 5 percent a year, according to Zimbabwe’s Department of Wildlife.

Farmers and herdsmen in Zimbabwe own the elephants roaming on their lands. If a big-game hunter wants to shoot an elephant in Zimbabwe, he buys a permit from a nearby village. This costs him some $25,000. There is no middle man. The permit fee goes directly to the villagers selling him the right to hunt an elephant. The schools, medical clinics, roads, and fences built with the funds benefit everyone in the community. The hunters—by giving the rural Zimbabweans a reason to consider the elephants creatures of value instead of dangerous pests—play a vital role in Zimbabwe’s elephant management program.

Today Zimbabwe’s problem is too many elephants. At last count there were at least 5,000 more elephants in Zimbabwe than the country’s wilderness can sustain. Wildlife Service officials in Zimbabwe are forced to cull about 5,000 to 7,000 elephants every year or the animals will eat themselves out of house and home.

If the Kenyan government weren’t averse to applying economic incentives to protect its wildlife, it could buy Zimbabwe’s excess elephants to replenish Kenya’s disappearing herds. Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi faces a future where elephants will be wiped out in his country by 2005.

A vocal supporter of the ivory ban, Kenya has been a de facto one-party state since independence in 1963. Moi holds fast to the trappings of socialism: despite Kenya’s pretensions to democracy (voters must publicly line up behind photos of their candidates during “elections”), the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices reports political killings and torture and police brutality every year—events unlikely to appear in tourist brochures or pamphlets from wildlife conservation groups advocating Kenya’s wildlife management policy. The wildlife in Kenya is as regulated as the citizens, and a no-questions-asked tribunal (poachers are shot on sight) is the rule of the savannah.

“The Kenyan government manages their elephants the way the East Germans tried to manage their economy: with armed guards, electric fences, and central planning. The result is a sad cycle of blame-passing and demands for greater control. Meanwhile, elephants die,” explains Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy group.

The grasslands of Kenya are a virtual war zone between government game wardens attacking by jeep and poachers with automatic weapons stealing in on foot. Kenyan newspapers report that a Western tourist was shot and injured in the cross fire. Despite Moi’s all-out efforts to subdue the poachers, Kenya’s elephant population has fallen by 75 percent since 1981, according to statistics published by the World Wildlife Fund, a leader in supporting the ivory trade ban. Tanzania and other central and eastern African countries recorded similar drops in their elephant populations.

“Property of the People”

Moi, who was recently re-elected without opposition for his third five-year term, considers elephants roaming on Kenyan soil the “property of the people.” Kenyans “own” the elephants as part of their national and cultural heritage—just as all Americans “own” the bald eagles. Yet symbolic ownership is not the same as legal ownership. Kenyans have no daily incentive to act responsibly toward the elephants because they don’t own them in the legal sense the Zimbabweans do. When something is said to be owned by everyone, it is owned by no one. And what no one owns, no one considers his responsibility.

Advocates of the ivory ban don’t dispute the statistics indicating that countries supporting trade in ivory are also seeing a rise in their elephant populations,

“We recognize that the status of the elephant is not the same everywhere in Africa,” said Michael Sutton of the World Wildlife Fund in an interview last summer. The U.S. government “agrees that the elephants’ situation is not identical throughout Africa,” but argues that, nonetheless, the only way to solve the problem of the shrinking elephant herds is an “across-the-board ban,” according to an official at the Fish and Wildlife Service. “We felt the only responsible thing to do was to say ‘no’ to all ivory,” he said.

Across-the-board bans on trade in rhinoceros and sea turtle products have done nothing to prevent a flourishing black market in powdered rhino horn and other products. Nor have those trade bans given the people who live in the animals’ environment the incentives to protect them. Yet even if the ivory ban did eliminate the world market for ivory, that would solve only half the problem.

At 3 percent, Africa has the highest human population growth rate in the world. Elephants in many sections of the continent are reproducing even more quickly. Today there are 500 million people in Africa, and 80 to 90 percent of them live in rural agrarian communities. The carrying capacity of the African wilderness is already at its limit in many areas, according to a report from the Zimbabwe Department of Wildlife. Life on the savannah is becoming an almost daily struggle between man and beast.

Stampeding elephants are destructive. A farmer’s first reaction when he sees an elephant marauding through his newly planted field is to go after it with a gun—unless he knows the elephant might bring him and his neighbors several thousand dollars from a trophy permit. Making elephants valuable gives farmers and rural villagers a reason to figure out how to share their lands with the otherwise troublesome animals. “We are living where elephants are nuisances. Surely as soon as you remove those [economic] benefits and the elephants destroy a village, the peasants are going to kill them. You don’t even need poachers to kill the elephants,” Bvuma said. Banning trade in ivory does not address the pressing problem of rural communities competing with wildlife for increasingly scarce land and resources.

Farmers and herdsmen in “southern African countries should not have to suffer because their neighboring governments to the north and east cannot keep their animals alive,” Thabo Yalala, an official at the Botswana embassy, said in a 1990 interview.

The 36 African countries where elephants roam are among the poorest in the world: the 1988 per capita GNP in 21 of those countries was below $500, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In poor countries poaching is a tempting alternative to farming the arid soil or protecting animals on game reserves and national parks. The average Kenyan earns $20 a month; rangers at Tsavo National Park in Kenya earn about $50 a month. But poachers rake in many times as much from a single day’s kill. One elephant tusk brings in hundreds of dollars, and hides from the animals are almost as valuable. Profit far outweighs the poacher’s chances of being shot on sight, as is law and common practice in most of Africa.

In Zimbabwe, villagers have a vested interest in the long-term well-being of their elephants. It wouldn’t make economic sense for rural Zimbabweans to supplement their incomes by poaching. Today poaching in Zimbabwe is “minimal, almost non-existent,” since the program was put into effect, according to Bvuma. Poaching in his country dropped by over 90 percent when Mugabe gave the villagers stewardship of the elephants. Meanwhile, poachers in Kenya kill 300 elephants a day.

Had Zimbabwe’s delegates to the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species signed the ivory ban, they would have undermined the rural villagers’ incentive to share their land with the elephants. By giving economic incentives to rural farmers and herdsmen, Mugabe created an effective stewardship relationship between nature and man. The “made in Switzerland” solution may have won kudos from armchair conservationists, but the clock is running out for elephants living outside the “made in Zimbabwe” wildlife management programs.