Next week delegates from 150 nations will meet in Nairobi, Kenya, to judge a set of proposals for the exploitation of wildlife. The forum is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Considerations for this year's meeting include proposals from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana to authorize sales of stockpiled elephant ivory to Japan--and proposals from Kenya and India to make all trade in elephant ivory illegal.
The opposition between these proposals is rooted in history. When half of Africa's elephants were lost to poaching in the 1970s and '80s, the slaughter was contained in East Africa--Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Southern African countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, were spared. In fact, some areas seemed to have too many elephants.
Referring to these areas as "pockets of overpopulation," Zimbabwe and South Africa institutionalized a mechanism for culling (mass killing) and quickly processing hundreds of elephants at a time. The ivory industry became a source of government revenue in southern Africa. Meanwhile, in East Africa, the ivory trade was the force behind a devastating loss of wildlife, human life and important tourism revenue.
These contradictions persist and fill every CITES meeting with passion and politics. The delegates swing back and forth like a pendulum. In 1989 CITES mandated a ban on international trade in elephant ivory. Poaching declined, and within a few years depleted populations began to recover. In 1997 CITES authorized the sale to Japan of 60 tons of stockpiled ivory from Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. The sale, which occurred in 1999, was followed by elephant poaching in Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
Minimal culling occurred during the decade of the full trade ban ('89-'99). South Africa and Zimbabwe used foreign funds to translocate small groups of elephants from crowded areas and permitted the initial exploration of elephant birth control. These efforts did not, however, represent top priorities, because the southern African leaders continued to endorse a vision of "wildlife utilization" that includes trade in ivory, perhaps supported by culling.
The likelihood that elephant culling will resume is thus affected by CITES decisions. Against this background the delegates will once more decide whether to allow or curtail further trade in elephant ivory.
For 16 years I have studied vocal communication in elephants, with field sites in Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe. I have spent hundreds of hours among elephants and developed a profound interest in these extremely social, long-lived beings whose intelligence is informed by deep memories and passions. I was struck by the extent to which elephants' emotions are shared and, sometimes, vicarious. This is reflected in their patterns of calling during periods of searching, finding, celebrating, comforting and helping one another.
A wide net of compassion surrounds young elephants and their adult female relatives at all times. Elephants' experiences are, in short, collective, and the collectivity of their experience colors their responses to everything. The collectivity escalates and multiplies the trauma associated with losses, and in long-lived animals with long memories, such losses are not soon overcome.
Elephants that survive poaching and culling may never fully recover from the repeated loss of what they once identified with and held dear. This is in the nature of elephants--it cannot be changed. And because compassion is in our nature too, the choice that confronts CITES delegates with each new swing of the pendulum is not only political and economic but also moral.
I remember the interesting moment in CITES history when people suddenly perceived that elephants might become extinct. Morality leapt to the surface. The vote banning trade in elephant ivory was, on this occasion only, nearly unanimous.
What was on the minds of those voters? Did they want to end an unnecessary industry? Apparently not, for it did not end. Did they want to prolong a valuable relationship that they abruptly realized they were losing? Yes, I would guess it was something of the sort. When the chips are down, people know perfectly well what the true issues are.
The ultimate loss of an industry that produces baubles from living elephants would not be grievous. The ultimate loss of the elephants, or even simply of the quality of their wild, compassionate lives--this would be devastating. As long as we remembered them we would never forgive ourselves.
The writer is director of the Elephant Listening Project and a research associate in Cornell University's Bioacoustics Research Program.