Obama wants to curb Africa’s ivory trade. Here’s what he’s up against.

July 1, 2013

On his visit to Tanzania on Monday, President Obama will unveil a new, $10 million initiative to curb rhinoceros and elephant poaching in Africa. International trade in illegal rhino horns and elephant tusks, driven in large part by rising demand in China and Thailand, is rapidly depleting the animals' populations in Africa. Obama's plan significantly increases American involvement in the issue, which Hillary Clinton also worked on as secretary of state. But this map, from a recent United Nations report, shows just how vast of an industry this has become:


These are the contours of the global ivory trade. Click to enlarge. (UNEP/GRID-Arendal)

The big problem is that time is running out. A 2011 study estimated that 7.4 percent of all African elephants may have been killed by poachers that year alone. From 1998 to 2007, the global ivory trade doubled, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Since 2007, it has doubled again. And the trade is shifting from small smuggler networks to large-scale operations: seizures of 800-plus kilos of illegal ivory shipments (that's about 1 ton) have doubled just since 2009. Elephants and rhinos are simply being wiped out, and quickly.

The other problem is economics, the simple force of which might be too much to overcome. Some of the countries trafficking in ivory and rhino tusks are among the poorest per capita in the world. Elephant tusks are worth $1,000 per pound, Ginette Hemley of the World Wildlife Fund told my colleague Juliet Eilperin; rhino horns sell for $30,000 per pound, about twice as much as gold. By comparison, Afghan opium farmers can charge about $606 per pound.

In Tanzania, 85 percent of exports are agricultural. One of its biggest exports is cashews, prices of which have been so low that 85,000 tons of Tanzanian cashews went unsold last year. In April, cashew farmers in the country rioted over low prices and stalled exports, destroying 24 buildings in the capital. Gross domestic product per capita by purchasing power parity is only $1,700 per person, ranked 200th in the world.

How do you deter Tanzanians – not to mention Kenyans, Mozambicans, Zambians, Zimbabweans and South Africans – from cultivating something so wildly lucrative as rhino horns and elephant tusks? The executive order creating a special task force for the issue seems to focus largely on enforcement, which advocates say is underfunded. But that's only part of the issue.

The comparison is imperfect, but it's hard not to think of U.S. efforts to curb illegal narcotics trafficking in Latin America. Even huge and costly efforts, including an all-out military assault by the Mexican government against drugs cartels, have not been able to overcome the economics of demand creating supply. The Obama administration gets this and has pushed China to try to curb its own demand, driven by a rapidly growing middle class that sees the valuable animal bones as status symbols and, sometimes, traditional medicinal ingredients.

Better law enforcement, whether against drug traffickers or ivory poachers, tends to drive up prices. That often encourages more people to start selling. But at some point, in theory, it will price out potential buyers. This is really hard to do with an addictive substance like opium but, in the past, there has been some successes with ivory, which used to be sold much more heavily in Europe and Japan but isn't anymore. Better enforcement is probably not going to halt all ivory shipments or certainly all ivory poaching, both of which are difficult to monitor and, given the economic incentives, even tougher to deter. The challenge is changing the incentives.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, there is illegal ivory just about everywhere. But the demand outside of Africa and East Asia tends to be much lower for two reasons: well-enforced laws and cultural taboos. The perception that buying ivory is wrong helped drive down Western demand for ivory in the 1980s, after a series of successful awareness campaigns. Around the same time, the world began implementing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a 1973 treaty that limited the ivory trade.

"The act of buying an ivory trinket is creating a situation that will see elephants and rhinos driven into extinction," Paul Mbugua, spokesman for the state-run Kenya Wildlife Services, told Al Jazeera. He estimated that, if trends continue, the animals have 10 years left.

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Max Fisher · July 1, 2013