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The ivory burn that almost was

Are sensational ivory valuations in the media derailing the conversation on elephant conservation?

Caption: Traditional dancers finish their performance as DNPW employees cover the ivory pile following cancellation of the World Wildlife Day burn scheduled for 2 April 2015. Credit: Morgan Trimble (photography to accompany this article at MorganTrimble.com).

Malawi set to burn its ivory stockpile

The Independent broke the story in the international press that Malawi intended to burn its 4 tonne ivory stockpile on 2 April. Despite mentioning recent bigger ivory burns in Ethiopia (6 tonnes) and Kenya (15 tonnes), the article led with hyperbole: “The world’s poorest country is to make the world’s most expensive bonfire.”

Whether Malawi is the poorest country in the world depends on how you measure, but by any account, times are tough. GDP per capita is a measly $227. The Independent reported that Malawi would burn ivory worth more than £5m, and other publications followed suit. Newsweek published an article titled “Malawi government to burn $7.5m ivory stockpile”.

These extravagant valuations and the line about “the world’s most expensive bonfire” were widely quoted in the media and became fodder for public discourse. People took sides in the press, on social media and on the street, questioning the wisdom of a poor country destroying something so “valuable” or applauding the symbolic act as courageous.

Meanwhile, Malawi prepared to burn its stockpile at parliament. Burning the ivory was to be the highlight of a World Wildlife Day celebration that the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and Lilongwe Wildlife Trust had painstakingly organised over the course of the year. It was to symbolise to the world that Malawi does not consider ivory a commodity and intends to crack down on wildlife crime in accordance with the recently signed international Elephant Protection Initiative.

At the event rehearsal, officials discussed logistics for the arrival of Malawi’s president, His Excellency Professor Peter Mutharika (H.E. they call him). He was to walk a red carpet, accept a petition from a cadre of school children, unveil a plaque against wildlife crime, and, dramatically, ignite Malawi’s ivory stockpile with a flaming silver baton amid an elaborate gule wamkulu dance performance.

As they talked, a mountain of tusks took shape within a ring of freshly cemented stones. Carved ivory beads and bangles adorned the pile like Christmas ornaments. DNPW employees had meticulously inventoried the 4 tonne stockpile - piece by piece, packed it into sacks and transported it to the parliament grounds. Under a blazing sun, observers from government and international organisations tallied as each bag was unloaded to ensure no ivory had gone missing, a precaution against ivory “leaking” into illegal markets.

The problematic value of ivory

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Wild Fauna and Flora (better known as CITES, an international treaty Malawi signed in 1982) famously banned all international trade in ivory in 1989 in response to rampant elephant poaching. Ivory prices and poaching levels dropped almost overnight.

Will Travers, president of the Born-Free Foundation explains that, following the trade ban “the ivory price collapsed down to tens of dollars a kilo; it’s now potentially around $2,000 to $2,500 a kilo. It has become valued out of all proportion. It’s a catastrophe that’s happening to elephants.”

Poaching has once again reached crisis level. According to conservative estimates, poachers killed more than 20,000 African elephants each year since 2011, an unsustainable rate for the continent’s population of around half a million. Forest elephants have been especially hard hit, losing two-thirds of their population in the past decade.

It’s a catastrophe that’s happening to elephants

While international trade in ivory is banned, many countries maintain partially legal domestic markets. China is by far the biggest. From the mid 2000s, demand in Asia exploded; illegal trafficking from Africa mirrored the trend. Dr Paula Kahumbu, CEO of Wildlife Direct, says: “The price of ivory has increased by 300% in the past three years.” International criminal syndicates illegally feed the markets and oversee heavy militarisation of poaching. If it weren’t for the value of ivory in China, where it reportedly fetches $2,100 wholesale, it would be much easier to protect elephants in Africa and to prevent the poaching war’s human casualties.

Many governments are stuck with huge stockpiles of seized contraband ivory and tusks from elephants that died naturally. There is no legal market for this ivory internationally, and experts say stockpiles form a reservoir to incite corruption for ivory laundering. Black market ivory prices in Asia dictate the sensational “values” reported in the media for government stockpiles.

In the past, CITES voted to allow two “one-off” sales of legal ivory from natural deaths and problem animal control (but not of seized ivory). In 1999, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe sold 50 tonnes to Japan. In 2008, South Africa joined the other three range states to sell 108 tonnes to China and Japan. Thereafter, illicit trade boomed. Though causality can’t be proven, critics accuse the sales of boosting demand by whetting appetite for ivory among buyers, erroneously signalling to customers that ivory is legal and well regulated, and maintaining a culture of ivory carvers. Growing disposable income among huge populations in Asia with cultural appreciation for ivory and a greater Chinese involvement in Africa both probably contribute to increased demand and the burgeoning crime that supports it.

African countries with ivory stockpiles have two options. One is to hold, protect and monitor them in case legal trade is eventually established. Elizabeth Bennett of Wildlife Conservation Society wrote in Conservation Biology this year: “Effective management of a legal ivory trade would require robust systems to be in place to ensure that ivory from illegally killed elephants cannot be laundered into a legal market.”

The rule of law would have to overcome rampant corruption at all levels of the supply chain. Legal trade would require a system that ensures that every piece of ivory traded in the world could be traced to ethical sources that promote free ranging elephants with no room for illegal actors. Governments would need to ensure that ivory production capacity, constrained by elephant biology of slow growth and reproduction, could meet demand from the growing Chinese middle class. Reformed judiciaries would need to dole out truly deterrent punishments for wildlife crime. Then, the value of legally sold ivory would need to eclipse the cost of protecting the stockpiles over the years and the huge cost of enforcement to maintain such a trade system.

That will be too late for wild African elephants at current rates of loss

Bennet says: “Addressing corruption throughout a trade network that permeates countries across the globe will take decades, if it can ever be achieved. That will be too late for wild African elephants at current rates of loss.”

What else can governments do with stockpiles? They can destroy them and eliminate the liability. Increasingly, countries appear to be rejecting any hopes for a legal market, recognising that stockpiles and the mere spectre of legal trade are feeding corruption, poaching, speculators and organised crime. Gabon, Congo, Kenya, Chad, Ethiopia, the US, the Philippines, Belgium, Hong Kong, the UAE, France and even China have all recently destroyed stockpiles.

Malawi cancels the ivory burn

Malawi stood ready to join them. Excitement was palpable in Lilongwe, but late on the eve of the burn Kondwani Nankhumwa, Minister of Information, Tourism and Culture, announced that the burn was cancelled. “Government had been advised that another 2.6 tonnes of ivory was still in the system as exhibits awaiting conclusion of cases which are pending in the courts.” He explained that all 6.6 tons would be destroyed together later.

Malawi’s commemoration of World Wildlife Day went ahead - the president unveiled the plaque, contemplated the ivory pile and left without setting it alight. Afterwards, exhausted DNPW workers doggedly recounted and repacked 4 tonnes of ivory before hauling it to a safe location.

Though true, the government’s excuse sounded hollow. The ivory in question represented Malawi’s biggest seizure ever, made in 2013. Could top officials have been unaware of it until the last minute? Further, will there ever be a time in Malawi when some ivory is not involved in some court case? According to Lilongwe Wildlife Trust director, Jonathan Vaughan, “Malawi is being targeted as a transit route by traffickers moving over 500kg at a time. There have been 36 seizures of between 5kg and 100kg at the country’s two international airports in the past five years.”

Still reeling from the aftermath of “cashgate” and the pullout of international donors, Malawi is the poster child for corruption in Africa. After the burn was cancelled, comments online and conversations in restaurants, pubs, buses and on the street indicated that many Malawians thought that officials probably cancelled the burn to sell ivory for personal gain or that China had swooped in with an offer to buy.

Four days after the postponed burn, Australian customs officials seized 110kg of smuggled ivory from a cargo flight on a stopover between Malawi and Malaysia. The rumour mill in Malawi exploded, but Brighton Kumchedwa, director of DNPW, assured that the seized ivory was not from the stockpile.

What is the value of government ivory stockpiles?

Following the postponed burn, editorials in the Malawian press vehemently argued the merits of selling the ivory for the much needed cash. They asked how could the government destroy such valuable ivory when Malawians are so strapped for resources?

But how much is Malawi’s stockpile really worth?

That ivory categorically has no value

“The vast majority of Malawi’s stockpile consists of ivory confiscated from traffickers and poachers. Very little of it is from elephants that died of natural causes,” reports Jonathan Vaughan.

“That ivory categorically has no value. Under international law you can’t sell contraband that you’ve seized. If you’re a government, you can’t sell any drugs, you can’t sell knocked off CDs, you can’t sell arms. Contraband can’t be sold under international law,” says Alexander Rhodes, chief executive of Stop Ivory.

To the government of Malawi, the ivory stockpile is less than worthless. It is a liability both in terms of the resources required to safeguard it and the potential for damage to Malawi’s international reputation if any ivory disappears. The only people who could profit from the stockpile are corrupt officials and criminals. Rhodes wrote recently in the Independent, “No fewer than six stockpiles have been robbed in the last year, some by fiercely armed gangs and people - including poorly paid guards - have died trying to defend stockpiles.”

Values like $7.5million assigned by journalists to Malawi’s stockpile are hugely misleading. “Picking the Asian black market value is not correct, but that’s the temptation that everyone goes for because it gives you the most sensational figure. The reality, of course, is that the ivory is not worth anything,” says Rhodes. “The whole thing is not only fabricated, it’s also wrong, and it’s also potentially causing a huge amount of damage.”

The whole thing is not only fabricated, it’s also wrong, and it’s also potentially causing a huge amount of damage

To be fair, journalists and publications that print sensational values for ivory stockpiles probably mean no harm. The Independent, for example, raised £500,000 in 2013 to combat the poaching crisis. The author of the line about “the world’s most expensive bonfire”, Simon Barnes, is a committed conservationist; in a separate article, he lauded Malawi’s “courageous stance on ivory” as a call for wealthier nations to tackle wildlife crime. However, sensationalising the value of stockpiles, especially of seized ivory that can never legally be sold, causes unnecessary confusion and dilutes attention for issues that truly deserve public debate, not just in Malawi, but globally - tackling organized crime, reducing demand, fighting corruption and judiciary reform.

For example, Malawi’s recently published Illegal Wildlife Trade Review explains that Malawi attracts traffickers because wildlife crime is high reward-low risk. No one has yet been sent to prison for trading in wildlife products and the average penalty for trafficking ivory is just $40. Perhaps the fact that criminals can steal Malawi’s national heritage with impunity, and the potential revenue from truly deterrent sentencing, should rather be at the forefront of public discourse.

The true explanation behind the government’s cold feet on the ivory burn will probably never be known. Brighton Kumchedwa, director of DNPW reports: “Government still remains committed, and we believe it will burn the stockpile of ivory at an opportune time.” Sentencing in the case involving the additional 2.6 tonnes of seized ivory is scheduled for 16 June. Prosecutors have invoked the money laundering act alongside the wildlife act to argue for a harsher sentence.

Following the conclusion of the trial, will Malawi’s government carry out its pledge to burn the entire 6.6 tonne stockpile? Will the headlines suggest an even higher “value” or will responsible journalism win out? Is it really worth jeopardising conservation in exchange for clicks and sales?

(Please visit MorganTrimble.com for accompanying photo essay.)

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