Thursday, August 14, 2014
China and African governments to blame for elephant genocide, says Michael Tomasky
The planet’s elephant population is plummeting, and they may go extinct within the next 20 years, thanks in large part to China’s lust for ivory. The presence of the Africa summit here in Washington directs our attention to a range of matters we don’t pay quite enough attention to—the global AIDS crisis, what used to be called “Third World” development, and more. But here’s what may be the most important one to me, put in the form of a question that I think every adult human being on the planet, especially those in China, ought to be asking themselves on a fairly regular basis: Do we want to be the human beings who eradicated elephants from the face of the Earth? If you pay no attention to things like this, that question shocks you, maybe to the point that you think I’m being ridiculous. But if you do pay attention, then you know very well the situation I’m describing: The vicious trade in ivory could lead to the extinction of the species in 20 years or even less. The number of elephants in Africa has gone from around 1 million to roughly half that in the last 35 years. And the population is falling even faster now. The story is this. When humans first became alarmed at the vast proportions of the slaughter of these astonishing animals back in the 1980s, a worldwide ban on the ivory trade was enacted by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It worked. Poaching fell off dramatically, and the black market price of ivory dropped.Ivory tusks are stored in boxes at Hong Kong Customs on August 7, 2013, after they were seized from a container at Kwai Chung Container Terminal a day earlier. But then some countries with large elephant populations began unilaterally disobeying the ban. Unsurprisingly, the thuggish Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was among the first, along with then-apartheid South Africa. By 1997, the ban had pretty much collapsed, and in 1999, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia were permitted a “one-off” legal sale of 108,000 pounds of ivory to Japan. Tusk weights vary a lot, but that’s maybe 1,400 dead elephants. There was another “one-off” sale in 2002, and then in 2008, the big one: After some aggressive lobbying by China in particular, CITES approved a sale of 110 tons of African ivory to China and Japan (which split it 60 tons to 50, respectively) on the theory that legal sales of large ivory stockpiles might depress the price and thereby slow poaching. The opposite happened—China controlled the supply of legal ivory tightly, which meant the demand was being met by the illegal stock. Today, ivory prices are at record highs, having tripled since that 2008 auction, up to around $1,500 a pound.