Dani Garavelli: Elephant in the room

Prince William’s offer to destroy royal ivory antiques has been applauded by some conservationists, but is it the best way to protect endangered species, asks Dani Garavelli

Prince William wants to destroy his familys ivory antiques. Picture: Reuters

IT MAY seem like an unlikely alliance:­ Prince William, who earlier this month was shooting wild boars and stags on a hunting trip in ­Cordoba, and Jane Goodall, who has dedicated her life to the study and ­welfare of chimpanzees. Yet it was to the veteran primatologist, with whom he shares a passion for conservation, that he apparently mooted an unconventional­ move in the war against illegal wildlife trading: the destruction of the extensive ivory collection at Buckingham Palace.

Over the centuries, the Royal Family has accumulated more than 1,200 intricately carved ivory artefacts, including a throne and footstool made for Queen Victoria and a selection of fans, cups, tankards and sword handles. Most of them are works of art and pre-date the days when African elephants were ­regarded as an endangered species. But the Prince, who recently launched a ­coalition of seven organisations aimed at stopping the illegal trade in wildlife, ­believes destroying the ivory could send a powerful message about the iniquity of owning a material which has long been the source of turmoil.

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No-one could argue with Prince ­William about the scale of the problems caused by the ivory trade. For centuries foreigners have killed elephants and ­rhinos for their tusks, with ivory playing a central role in the slave trade. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, set in the Belgian Congo in the 19th century, ivory came to symbolise the greed and violence of the white man.

Today, the slaughter continues. Despite a ban on international trading, 50,000 elephants are believed to have been killed last year, most of them illegally, to satisfy the growing demand for ivory, particularly from increasingly affluent China, with one expert warning the animals could be extinct within 12 years. Rhino poaching is also rife, with a record 1,000 killed last year in South ­Africa alone.

In China, the sale of ivory, regarded as a good luck or status symbol, is supposed to be restricted to about 130 government-licensed shops, with each item meant to come with a certificate to prove it is legitimate. And yet the black market thrives. It is estimated as much as 90 per cent of ivory sold in the country is illegal, with certificates faked or recycled.

In Africa, gangs of poachers are operating on a scale unseen since the 1980s, and wildlife is not the only casualty, with 1,000 rangers killed in the past decade and the trade in ivory used to fuel conflict in already volatile nations. Extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab and the Janjaweed are hunting down elephants then using the tusks to buy weapons. The organised crime syndicates they link up with are in turn exploiting civil ­unrest, unprotected borders and venal officials to ship ivory across the world.

In proposing to destroy the Royal Family’s collection, Prince William is responding to the plea from a group of conservationists who believe stigmatising the possession of ivory would help tackle the problem. Virginia McKenna, founder of the Born Free Foundation, said the suggestion was “amazing” and offered to help destroy the stock. But there are others who point out that the items are works of art and believe their destruction would be an act of wanton vandalism. “We have to recognise that [these items] exist. Ivory was a treasured material that was worked on by craftsmen of the highest order during the Renaissance,” said art critic Brian Sewell. “It’s pointless. I can’t see the connection between saving elephants and destroying works of art made centuries ago.”

There are those too who believe that destroying ivory, making it harder to come by, merely inflates its value; a better answer, they say, would be to flood the market with existing ivory, although previous attempts to do this have backfired.

As it is unclear who, if anyone, has the authority to order the destruction of the royal collection, it seems unlikely to happen any time soon. But, if nothing else, Prince William’s intervention has thrown a light on the scale of the trade and the complexity of trying to put a stop to it in countries riven by violence and corruption. Broadly, though conservationists are united in their desire to see elephant numbers rise, they are divided on whether allowing a limited legal trade thwarts or promotes the illicit one. Those who favour limited trade insist wildlife only thrives if it has an economic value. In their eyes, a limited legal trade in ivory is the key to the species’ survival. Photos of King Juan Carlos, the honorary president of the World Wildlife Fund’s Spanish chapter, posing in front of an elephant he shot in Botswana in 2012 may have turned the stomachs of animal-lovers (and led to his dismissal from the post), but the money which is made from legal hunts on reserves where elephant numbers are controlled may arguably help alleviate the poverty which fuels poaching, and be used to fund rangers.

The same goes for limited international trade. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) frequently comes under pressure from countries in southern Africa (where elephant numbers are slightly higher) to relax the rules on the sale of its stockpile of ivory so money raised can be reinvested in conservation.

But other groups, such as the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), believe any legal market simply fuels a parallel illegal one. And they say the experience of the past few years proves that only a total ban on the international and domestic trade will reverse the fortunes of the world’s dwindling elephant population. “In an ideal world where people are completely law-abiding and don’t let their greed get the better of them, it may be possible to have a limited legal trade,” says Mary Rice, executive director of the EIA. “But with 30 years’ experience, it’s fairly clear to us that a legal market always provides a mechanism for the trading of illegal ivory.”

Ivory has been exported from Africa and Asia for more than two millennia, with elephants wiped out of north Africa 1,000 years ago. At the peak of the trade – during the colonisation of the continent in the 19th Century – around 800-1,000 tonnes was exported to Europe, where it was used for piano keys, billiard balls and ornaments. After the Second World War, the market dipped, but in the 1970s, as prosperity returned, so too did demand, and by the 1980s ivory was again being exported to Japan, Europe, America and Hong Kong. International trade in ivory from Asian elephants was banned in 1975 as numbers reached crisis point. By 1989, however, the number of African elephants had also dropped from 1.3 million in 1979 to 600,000 and it was clear CITES needed to take action.

At first the body, open to the argument put forward by members states such as Zimbabwe that wildlife ought to have economic value, merely produced a new control system involving paper permits, registration of huge ivory stockpiles and the monitoring of legal ivory movements. According to the EIA this was a catastrophic mistake. Since in many countries large parts of the stockpiles were owned by crime syndicates, the amnesty allowed them to become wealthier and take the authorities for a ride. They quickly gained control of a large number of permits, which allowed them to smuggle new ivory with apparent legitimacy.

Efforts to introduce a ban on international trade were hampered by disagreements among African countries, with those in the south, including South Africa and Zimbabwe, opposed. But, in 1990, a breakthrough was reached. The African elephant was placed on what was known as Appendix One and the ban implemented.

In the early years, the move appeared to be having an impact and elephant numbers began to rise. But the south African countries kept up the pressure to have the elephant downgraded to Appendix Two and to be allowed to trade. CITES eventually agreed to experimental sales from the existing stockpiles, first to Japan and then, more controversially, to China, on the understanding they would flood the market with cheap ivory so as to pull the rug from under the illegal traders. The deals were arranged only after it was assured countries had airtight controls and regulations systems in place (although EIA investigations showed, the Chinese system was full of loopholes).

According to EIA, what happened in China was that far from flooding the market, the government – which had bought the 62 tonnes of ivory for $160 a kilo – decided to release it to registered sellers in small batches of 5 tonnes a year at prices of between $400-$500 a kilo. “What we’ve seen is a huge inflation of prices, we’ve seen a thriving counterfeit industry and we have also seen the system itself being abused,” says Price.

Even if China had sold the ivory cheaply, Price says, there is no guarantee it would have stemmed the illegal trade as no analysis of the potential demand was ever carried out and seems, in fact, to be almost unquenchable. “The Chinese authorities at the CITES meeting last year said that in order for them to meet the current demand, they would need 200 tonnes of ivory a year and there are just not enough elephants left on the planet to supply that in a sustainable manner,” says Price.

From an African perspective, EIA says there is little evidence the money made from trading is being used to tackle poachers. In Zimbabwe for example, the money from the sale of stockpile went not to conservation but into central coffers. The Zimbabwean National Army were, at one stage, found to be involved in poaching and whistle-blowers were allegedly murdered.

As to the argument that animals need to have an economic value in order to survive, Price points out that, in Tanzania, 17 per cent of GDP comes from wildlife tourism, which accounts for 40,000 jobs. “If we want to continue to be able to see elephants in the wild in the future then the easiest and most effective way is to ban all trade [in ivory],” says Price. “If there is no market, consumers know where they stand and the job of the enforcement community is more straightforward.”

The EIA does seem finally to be shifting opinion, though this has come about less as a result of dwindling elephant numbers than a response to a rise in ivory­-funded terrorism and organised crime. In the past few years, there have been high-profile burnings of stockpiles of seized ivory in the US, Philippines, Gabon and even China, with Hong Kong and Tanzania agreeing to burn theirs in the near future. Such burnings are important not only because stockpiles are difficult to secure and susceptible to theft and corruption, but because they represent an acknowledgement that trading in ivory will never be acceptable. And at last week’s wildlife conference in London, at which Prince William spoke, four African countries – Botswana, Gabon, Chad and Tanzania – which have previously campaigned for limited trade, pledged to honour a ten-year moratorium on ivory sales. South Africa, on the other hand, didn’t turn up to the conference or sign the pledge as it ran counter to its policy and philosophy of sustainable use, so there is still work to be done.

Where Prince William’s professed desire to destroy the royal ivory collection fits into all this is unclear. Although the legitimate sale of antiques does provide some cover for the illegal trade, the royal ivory is unlikely ever to find its way on to the market. But there is no doubting the Duke of Cambridge’s love for elephants and rhinos or his commitment to ending the ivory trade that is driving them to the brink of extinction. By raising even the possibility of destroying the royal collection, he has, like Conrad, successfully portrayed ivory as a symbol of greed and violence, something you should be ashamed of owning as ­opposed to the “white gold” men have lusted after for generations.