Gabon ivory
Illegal ivory is burned in Gabon | Photo: animalrescueblog | CC BY-NC 2.0

Elephant in the Room: the Illegal Ivory Trade, Wildlife and War

The African Elephant is a keystone species, strongly affecting the ecosystems in which they live. The recent drop in elephant populations across the African continent are therefore cause for major concern in the realm of wildlife conservation. However, this downturn is not only cause for ecological concern. The illegal trade in ivory is an important source of revenue for armed groups across the African continent, and highlights questions of governance, corruption, and organized crime. What are the key drivers of illegal elephant killing? What consequences does the trade have, ranging from the local to the international level? How can the trade be halted as a means of warfare financing and ongoing corruption?

The ivory trade and elephant hunting have made headlines in recent months. U.S. President Donald Trump briefly revoked the United States’ ban on elephant trophy imports in November 2017, while China banned its domestic trade in ivory in January 2018. The renewed public interest in elephant conservation comes at a time of unprecedented data quality and availability on the subject. This offers a window of opportunity to tackle declining elephant populations, to examine the socio-economic drivers of elephant killing, and ultimately to address the decline in elephant populations by combatting the illicit trade in an evidence-based manner. Ivory poaching is not only worth considering from a conservation perspective, but also as a question of conflict studies and political economy.

The international framework for elephant conservation

The trade in the coveted material goes back many of thousands of years. Ivory was a key export in the colonial period – before synthetic materials became common, it was used for luxury items such as piano keys, ornamental figurines, and jewelry. After decolonization, the trade remained widely unregulated. This climate led to an estimated halving of African elephant populations over the course of the 1980s alone.

The 1973/1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is the primary international treaty governing the trade in rare wildlife. CITES aims to ensure that the trade in wildlife does not threaten the concerned species’ survival. Elephants were added to Appendix One of the treaty in 1989, effectively banning the international trade in ivory. States such as South Africa and Zimbabwe contested the ban, arguing that the sustainable culling of elephants could both help protect the species and support local communities. This lead to lower levels of protections under CITES than elephants have elsewhere. Today, some southern African states continue to argue that their elephant populations are not endangered and therefore can be managed sustainably. Conservation NGOs, on the other hand, highlight the importance of making the ivory trade taboo and focusing on more rigorous implementation of the guidelines already in place.

 The recent decline of elephant populations

The CITES framework requires sound data in order to evaluate its effectiveness. How severe has the downturn in elephant populations been? For many years, due to factors such as lacking funds and ongoing conflict, sound data for broadly analyzing elephant populations on a continent-wide scale was hard to come by. Similarly, tracking the illegal killing of elephants poses challenges due to its secretive nature. Several recent efforts into collecting new data and compiling available data, however, offer comprehensive insights into African elephant populations and the extent of their illegal killing.

The 2016 Great Elephant Census found an overall 30% decrease in the continent’s elephant population between 2007 and 2014. This decline has gained momentum since 2010, with average annual rates of 8% (see Fig. 1). The landmark survey used aerial surveying techniques, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to the tune of $7 million.

Estimated trends in elephant populations for Great Elephant Census study areas with historical data available, 1995–2014
Fig. 1: Estimated trends in elephant populations for Great Elephant Census study areas with historical data available, 1995–2014. (Data and graphic: Chase et al. 2016)

Illegal elephant killing

What is driving these heightened mortality rates? Today, elephants are one of the most prominent species covered by the convention. Illegal killing has been widely identified as a main driver of declining elephant populations, probably greater than factors such as shrinking habitats. To combat poaching, the parties to CITES decided to create a system monitoring the illegal killing of elephants in 1997 and 1999.

In place since 2002, the program’s estimates show compelling trends. Illegal elephant killing varies widely across the African continent: The estimated proportion of illegally killed elephants in West and Central Africa has consistently ranged between 70% and 90%. Meanwhile, that of Eastern Africa has decreased from about 60% in 2011 to 30% in 2016, and Southern Africa has ranged between 30% and 40%. The CITES Secretariat considers values above 50% “cause for concern.”

Socio-economic drivers, war and wildlife

If poaching is the main reason for the downturn in elephant populations, then what makes a country or region more likely to experience high rates of illegal elephant killing? Ivory poaching is certainly driven by socio-economic factors. These include broad elements such as poor governance and low human development: countries with lower levels of state capacity, as well as life expectancy, schooling, and income have higher levels of illegal elephant killing.

Furthermore, ivory is a known source of income for many armed groups across the African continent. The al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab terrorist group and Sudan’s Janjaweed paramilitary militia have been known to finance their activities through involvement in the ivory trade, as has the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Though the strength of the recently sensationalized link between poaching and ivory has been questioned by some, ivory remains a source of income for armed groups nonetheless.

However, the link between poaching and warfare is not straightforward. Depending on the circumstances, conflict can have varying effects on wildlife: On the one hand, it can add additional strain on habitats through direct combat, debris, and poaching. On the other, it can at times relieve ongoing pressures as people avoid war zones, leading to phases of regeneration.

A recent research note in Nature found that the presence of armed conflict indeed negatively impacts many species. The study’s 253 observed timeframes of mammal populations on average remained stable in peaceful times. Even low frequencies of conflict took populations below replacement level. Interestingly, however, the intensity of warfare – measured in human casualties – has no measurable effect on declines in wildlife populations. The authors suggest that this indicates that even low levels of conflict induce significant levels of the negative factors mentioned above.

Examining the data on elephants in particular – 97 out of 253 observed timeframes – reveals puzzling results, however. Of these 97 timespans, 29 saw conflict and the remaining 68 were peaceful. Among the peaceful observations, population growth rates ranged between 0.00 (extinction) and 2.44, but averaged 0.99 (slightly below to replacement level; 1.00) with a median of 1.03 and a standard deviation (the average “spread” of data points around the average) of ±0.35. Among the observations with conflict, the growth rate range was tighter – between 0.56 and 1.25 with a standard deviation of ±0.14 – and averaged a surprising 1.03 with a median of 1.03, slightly above replacement level (see Fig. 2).

The relationship between conflict frequency and mammal population growth, 1946–2010
Fig. 2: The relationship between conflict frequency and mammal population growth, 1946–2010 (own calculations and figure, data: Daskin & Pringle 2018); NB: This simple scatter plot does not adjust for additional covariates.)

This indicates that findings from other species may not be fully transferrable to elephant populations in warfare, perhaps due to their prominence, coveted tusks, and their role as a keystone species. It could also point to differences in when elephant surveys are conducted, as opposed to surveys of other mammals.

The aspects of development, governance, and warfare begin to explain the supply side of the international trade: How many elephants are killed annually in various regions of Africa, and where? Under which socio-economic conditions they are more likely to be killed? A second crucial element of the trade is the demand for ivory.

Although the international commercial trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, many domestic markets continue to flourish. The demand for ivory is primarily driven by East Asian markets. Recent developments indicate a fundamental change to the demand side of the trade, however: Two of the largest markets – the aforementioned mainland China and Hong Kong – have recently banned the domestic sale of ivory. China banned its trade starting this year, and Hong Kong’s legislative voted in January to shut down its ivory trade by 2021. However, 90% of the Chinese ivory market is illegal, and this black market may very well benefit further from the continued demand for ivory ornaments. The recent efforts in data collection provide a basis for evaluating these measures’ efficacy.

Nonetheless, these domestic bans on the ivory trade give hope to elephant conservationists. While the effects of warfare and poverty may be difficult to combat from a conservation perspective, rigorous implementation of international agreements such as CITES combined with a domestic crackdown on illegal trading in states that have high demands for ivory could prove to rectify the dire situation of African elephants. This, in turn, would cut an important source of income for rebel groups on the continent. Effective elephant conservation therefore not only has ecological payoffs, but could also help minimize conflict in the long run. The failure of regimes such as the Kimberley certification process against “blood diamonds,” however, may provide a helpful analogy, and caution against overly optimistic expectations of such measures.

Anton Peez

Anton Peez

Anton Peez is an Associate Fellow at PRIF and an MPhil Candidate at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on norm evolution and compliance in international affairs.

Anton Peez

Anton Peez is an Associate Fellow at PRIF and an MPhil Candidate at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on norm evolution and compliance in international affairs.

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