With close to 27 tons of ivory stockpiles worth millions of dollars on hand, Kenyans are watching with keen interest as international organizations lobby for a continued ban on the trade in ivory -- a ban supported, oddly enough, by their own government.
Nongovernmental organizations will press their case for the "protection" of elephants, whales and other animals at this week's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting in Santiago, Chile. Meanwhile, five African countries -- Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe -- will propose a one-time lifting of the ban on trade in ivory.
In Kenya, it is the poor who bear the brunt of elephant-related damage, while receiving few of the benefits of their conservation. Each year marauding elephants destroy crops and trample humans. Kenyans living near national parks face constant fear but have little control over management of their own natural resources.
Some "conservationists" have gone so far as to describe the local people as a danger to wildlife. But the real danger to African wildlife stems from government intervention, not local people. Modern agricultural techniques are sufficient to feed people on the existing land space. All that is needed are proper land-tenure systems, enforceable property rights and the freedom to trade (selling cash crops and other goods and buying imported food -- just as people do all over the world).
Human-centered conservation, based on incentives to protect both animals and vegetation, is critical to the success of any conservation endeavor. This will happen only if the rural poor who live closest to wild animals are involved and enfranchised in the process of conservation, through the extension and protection of property rights to land and wildlife.
Vesting ownership in the people who live with elephants would enable them to make the trade-offs between conserving habitat and converting it to alternative uses. If experience elsewhere in Africa is a guide, ownership by local people would result in more conservation, not less. And that would be enhanced, not diminished, by legalizing trade in ivory.
Legalizing the ivory trade and extending property rights to elephants would ensure the animals' long-term survival by giving people a strong incentive to protect them from poachers. In contrast, making the ivory trade illegal drives up the price of ivory, making dead elephants much more valuable than living ones. Trade bans that destroy the legal value of wildlife also undermine the incentive to maintain habitats for wildlife.
In the face of this seemingly ineluctable logic, groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) have argued that existing ivory stocks should be destroyed to prevent financial value from being placed on living creatures. IFAW and other groups seem to believe that charismatic animals such as elephants are too valuable to be owned by individuals.
The suggestion is absurd and offensive. If a demand exists for ivory in China, Japan and other countries for ornamental seals (as well as chopsticks, piano keys, jewelry and carvings), why shouldn't it be sold there? If the ivory trade were legal, poor Africans would reap huge economic benefits from owning, raising and selling elephants. When demand for lamb or wool increases, IFAW doesn't suddenly shout about the imminent demise of the world's sheep population or demand that Europeans stop selling sheep. Why? Because sheep are private property, and an increase in demand actually leads to an increase in sheep numbers.
Sadly, and in spite of the huge benefits of decentralizing ownership and legalizing trade, Kenya continues to support central-government intervention in wildlife management and a ban on trade. The reason for this apparently perverse position is that the government is under pressure from two important sources to maintain the status quo. First are the powerful Western nongovernmental organizations, which collect millions of dollars in the name of saving the elephant. Second are the international aid agencies, which make donations contingent on the Kenyan government's running its national parks and opposing a reintroduction of ivory trade.
In Kenya, management of wildlife is split between government ministers, local county councils and individual landowners. This approach makes wildlife management difficult. Elephants are essentially an open-access resource and have become victims of the "tragedy of the commons" because no individual has the legal ability to protect them from poachers.
Kenya's government could resolve these problems by ceding much of its land to individual landowners, group ranches and corporate bodies, to be sold or held in trust. Individuals would then have incentives to actively participate in wildlife and habitat conservation, with the benefits flowing to other coveted wildlife species.
The continued ban on ivory trade and the barricading of animals will only undermine long-run elephant survival and will do little to enrich impoverished Kenyans. Kenyans and other Africans do not need development aid to develop. What they do need is the ability to make use of their resources -- even elephants -- without the interference of elitist eco-imperialists.
The author is director of the Inter-Region Economic Network in Kenya.