Farming Elephants: Will Travers Responds

Simon Jenkins: “If You Really Want To Save The Elephants, Farm Them” (Guardian Thursday 13 February)

A Response: Will Travers OBE. Founder The Born Free Foundation.

Simon Jenkins compared the bloody ivory trade and the scourge of rhino and elephant poaching with the trade in cocaine.

In two respects, he is right.

Ivory and rhino horn are expensive – so is cocaine

Ivory and rhino horn trade costs lives – so does the trade in illegal class A drugs.

But in almost every other respect his analogy is way off the mark.

Global organised crime syndicates ruthlessly exploit the miserable, addictive nature of drugs to make massive profits. Ivory is not a drug, it is not addictive. It is an item of adornment, a middle class status-symbol, and it is human vanity and greed that the cartels exploit to make a killing.

In his article “If You Really Want To Save The Elephants, Farm Them” (Guardian Thursday 13 February) Mr Jenkins dismissed the recent High Level Meeting on Illegal Wildlife Trade as a junket for the elite, focussed on issues that few care about deeply. Extraordinarily, he suggested that the meeting enslaved Africans once more!

Bizarrely, he bemoaned the destruction of ivory stocks in the US, China and France as equivalent to ‘medieval princes burning food to taunt starving subjects’, claiming it was the waste of a resource that could be sold to support conservation.

He carefully avoided reporting the string of ivory stockpile destructions that have taken place in Africa by Africans – in Kenya, Gabon, Zambia – and soon to take place in Tchad, Ethiopia, Tanzania and possibly others.

He characterised the London summit as a meeting of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). It was not. Meetings of the 180 signatory countries to CITES take place every 3 years (the last in Bangkok, March 2013, I was there, as I have been at every CITES meeting since 1989) and this was not one of them. He loosely describes CITES as the “world wildlife organisation”. It is not. It is a wildlife trade control agreement which, despite its many flaws, is the only internationally-binding accord that can control and, if necessary, stop legal trade if that trade threatens the survival of a species.

When it comes to the history of the ivory trade his recollection is simply mystifying, especially since it has been so well-documented. Far for the international ivory trade ban (agreed in 1989 by, yes, CITES) leading to elephant numbers halving and the prices of raw ivory soaring, the price of illegal ivory fell through the floor and, across Africa, elephant numbers stabilised or started to recover.

It was the limited re-opening of trade, not the banning of it, that eradicated those hard-won gains. In 2008, it was the foolish decision (in which the UK government of the day was involved) to allow over 100 tonnes of ivory to be legally sold from Southern African stockpiles to Japan, and more particularly, China, that has stimulated the industrial levels of poaching, the soaring quantities of smuggled ivory and the massive escalation in price that now place the species at such fatal risk across much of its range.

He suggests that the recent extraordinary spike in rhino poaching was as a result of a CITES-inspired trade ban (applied in the 1970’s). Incorrect. In fact, the opposite may be true. The legalising of limited rhino trophy hunting, a measure fully exploited by criminality (including the use of pseudo hunters and Thai prostitutes to shoot the animals), has contributed to a situation whereby while 13 rhino were poached in South Africa in 2007, 1004 were poached there in 2013 – a 7000% increase.

He extolls the virtues of community based natural resource management (CBNRM) programmes like CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe, where local communities were supposedly advanced and enriched through autonomous, localised exploitation of their natural resources (including wildlife), but conveniently avoids reporting that the programme is controversial, widely discredited and required US$45 million in donor support while delivering less than US$10 million to local communities (1989-1996)

He asserts that the annual selling of 5 rhino trophies in Namibia (the latest being sold at auction in Dallas, Texas, for $350,000) make ‘far more than photography tourism could ever generate’.  Let’s be clear: the total trophy hunting revenue claimed by the trophy hunting industry itself (not exactly an impartial source) for all of Africa is $200 million a year, half generated in South Africa. Kenya alone generates about $1billion a year from non-consumptive wildlife-based photo tourism and employs hundreds of thousands of people into the bargain.

He applauds the views of Michael t’Sas-Rolfe and his ‘powerful’ case for farming ranched rhino horn. He should have heard Mr t’Sas-Rolfe’s rudimentary economic theory (there is no ‘basic law of economics’) brilliantly dismantled by Alejandro Nada, (the eminent Mexican economist) at the Symposium on Wildlife Trade held at the Zoological Society of London, the day before the London Summit.

There is no simplistic ‘supply and demand’ paradigm at play here. It is all about risk. We don’t know the size of the market; we don’t know the drivers of the market; we don’t know how elastic that market is (how much people are willing to spend before price starts to have an impact on demand). As Nick Herbert MP said recently in a debate on wildlife trade in the House of Commons ‘we need to choke demand, not stoke it’, and that legitimizing trade is likely to stimulate demand not satisfy it. The ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy, so eloquently championed by Robert Mugabe (not renowned for sound economic practices), is dangerously naive.

Far from shackling Africa to the whimsy of a new breed of eco-colonialists (Mr Jenkins’ remarks about the ability of western conservation charities to hold sway over the sovereign rights of African nations are quite fantastical), the London conference was significant because it respected the views of the majority of African nations who do not support a return to ivory or rhino horn trade; because it secured international continuity of effort to bear down on organised wildlife crime, the proceeds of which increasingly end up fuelling rebel militias such as the Lord’s Resistance Army; because it established new conservation funding streams, including the Elephant Protection Initiative, linked to destruction of stockpiles; because it recognised the central role that those countries with elephants and rhino have in securing a future for their wildlife species, in particular Africa’s blueprint for elephant conservation – created and agreed by all 38 elephant range States – the African Elephant Action Plan.

He did not acknowledge the real life impact of the ivory trade on real, live elephants. Up to 50,000 gunned down a year (meaning a net loss in elephant numbers of around 30,000 a year); the macabre, putrid mass of bones and skin that stains the African earth after the poachers have gone (and which I have witnessed at first hand time and again); the orphaned calves left to starve; entire herds eradicated by the ubiquitous AK47; the grieving survivors.

He suggests tusks could, in some way be removed (harvested) from living elephants. Fantasy. Elephants need and use their tusks as part of their survival strategy for stripping bark to eat, mining for salt, digging for water. The males use them to joust for social dominance. And each tusk has a massive nerve running 30% of its length, in a big tusk as thick as a human arm, which would have to be left intact leaving enough ivory to tempt poachers – who don’t care about the nerve!

So for these and many other reasons, Mr Jenkins, whose commentary is usually so perceptive, is all at sea when it comes to the wildlife trade and the notion that species such as elephants can be ‘farmed’. Incidentally elephants fail to thrive in captivity (captive populations in zoos around the world are on their way out as the number bred don’t replace the number that die) and suffer all sorts of physical and behavioural problems.

Africa’s conservationists know what to do to save elephants. Marketing gurus know what to do to drive down and eradicate demand for ivory. Many politicians, including our own Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, are willing to make the political commitment. Rangers and wardens remain willing to put themselves between the poacher’s bullet and its intended target. The resources still need to be funded.

Mr Jenkins, there is two simple truths. Ivory is not cocaine and elephants are not cattle.

** An edited version of this article was published in The Guardian on Monday 3rd March 2014

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