Why Everyone From Conservationists to Yao Ming to Andrew Cuomo Supports Banning Ivory Sales

Because of corruption and laundering, any system of legal ivory trade threatens the continued existence of elephants

Photo: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

Last year, poachers killed some 30,000 elephants for their tusks. If this trend continues—and there's no sign that it won't—elephants might not be long for this world. In August 2006, 19 African nations signed a document calling for the complete ban of ivory sales. That ban was never put in place, but an increasing number of conservationists and activists are now arguing that that's the only way to go. Richard Ruggiero, a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, explained this reasoning to the New Scientist last year:

"We feel that [flooding the market with legalized ivory] is absolutely not the way to go. To begin with, demand is frequently stimulated by availability. Also, in principle a legal trade makes sense, but in reality it creates a smokescreen for laundering illegal ivory. When people see a logo or statement that it was legally acquired, they don't dig very deeply for the details used to determine that. Finally, a simpler reason is that the demand is so high right now that there are not enough elephants left in the world to produce enough legally acquired ivory to satisfy the market."

Elizabeth Bennett, vice president for species conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society, echoed that sentiment in an essay published last week in the journal Conservation Biology. Bennett compared countries with elephants with corruption index ratings, finding that six of the eight African countries that are responsible for the majority of ivory trafficking also happen to be some of the most corrupt nations in the world.

Ivory stock piles in these countries, she continues, are oftentimes not well secured. And even if they are, guards and officials have little trouble sneaking those extremely valuable specimens out. It's better to just destroy all ivory stockpiles—as the U.S. and a number of other countries have done recently—than to keep such stashes around, she argues. Similarly, closing all legal markets would ensure that ivory laundering is shut down. 

“In the long term, the only sustainable solution is for the demand for ivory – the ultimate driver of the system – to be reduced," she said in a statement. "Until that happens, if elephants are to survive, we need to close existing legal markets.” 

Former basketball star Yao Ming, too, is trying to raise awareness in China about elephants' plight. He recently released a documentary film and book called The End of the Wild to spread that message, The New York Times reports. And while no countries have been so bold as to implement Bennett's second proposal—closing all legal markets—New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did just sign a new law designed to combat illegal wildlife trade. It bans the sale of all ivory less than 100 years old and increases penalties for those caught buying or selling ivory outside of that category. 

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