Why Little Belgium’s Ivory Crush Will help Save The Mighty Elephant
In the wake of France, the USA, China, Philippines, Chad and Ghana, Belgium became the latest country to destroy its stockpile of ivory. On Wednesday at the Palais des Colonies near Brussels the country crushed 1.5 tons that had been confiscated by customs from its various ports and airports over the past 25 years. Belgian’s Deputy Prime Minister, Laurette Onkelinx, who holds the portfolio of Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health and also happens to be in charge of animal welfare and CITES in Belgium, stated, just prior to her feeding the first tusk into the crushing machine that, “the illegal hunting of elephants is a plague that has to be liquidated and that all ivory resulting from it has to be annihilated.” Later she told me “Belgium is intent on not being part of the problem but part of the solution.” This is a recent trend that is fast becoming fashionable among nations housing stockpiles of confiscated ivory, but how exactly does it help the plight of the African elephant?
There are those countries, like Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa that carry huge stockpiles of ivory. They are equally intent to trade-off rather than destroy their stockpiles. Their argument is a common one. The considerable financial windfall accrued from such a sale could go directly into funding anti-poaching and educational programs. The buzzword among these nations is ‘sustainable utilization’ and South Africa, along with Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia have already benefited from CITES approved stockpile sales in the past. Furthermore, an increase of ‘legally’ sold ivory on the market would effectively bring the price of ivory down. That, it is hoped, will discourage organised crime and, by extension, poaching These countries therefore are eager for another CITES-approved sale while Tanzania with its colossal 100 plus ton stockpile is particularly anxious to get its finger in the lucrative pie.
However, the argument in favour of trade firstly relies on the good governance of nations notorious for doing the opposite. It has recently come to light that government ministers in both Kenya and Tanzania are implicated in the illegal ivory trade. Secondly, the idea that off-loading stockpiles onto the market will reduce poaching is not grounded in fact. In essence these rationalizations are nothing shy of speculation. Those in favour of a regulated trade do not know if the increase of quantity onto the market will reduce the price of ivory and the scourge of poaching. In fact, the opposite tends to be true. Past attempts where stockpiles have been sold, like the 100 plus ton once-off sale in 2008 resulted directly in an increase in ivory demand and poaching. The problem ultimately lies with the mixed and confusing signals potential ivory consumers receive. Is it okay or not okay to buy ivory? How can I tell the difference between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ ivory?
What this trade model fails to address is just how large the demand for these products are. It naively believes that we will easily be able to keep up with demand. But does it know just how voracious the consumer demand is, especially when a green light has been given to buy? If anyone does the simple arithmetic between the insatiable appetite of a few million consumers versus the stock from a few hundred farmed rhino, somehow we can’t see supply ever meeting the demand.
At least by crushing all ivory the message, as Deputy Prime Minister Onkerlinx says, is crystal clear – ivory is off-limits, period. What makes Belgium’s event especially effective is the date chosen for the crush wasn’t random. “We are on the eve of a 2 day European seminar devoted to the protection of wildlife fauna and flora and the fight against illegal trade,” announced Onkelinx, “Our country will take advantage of this occasion to strengthen the internal collaboration within the European Union with a special focus on the tracking down…and seizing of merchandise not only at entry points but to infiltrate the poacher’s network within and beyond the intra-EU routes.”
IFAW’s (International Fund for Animal Welfare) CEO, Azzedine Downes corroborated this sentiment. As guest speaker of the event, Downes said that the need for consensus among nations is critical in combating the misery facing elephants. Nations need to speak with a single voice with a clear message in order all pull in the same direction. As long as there are opposing views on how to deal with the elephant crises, the deaths of elephants will continue unabated.
Downes went further to say that the act of destroying its own stockpile, a country like Belgium, or any non-elephant range or major ivory consumer nation or nations like the USA or EU, helps with persuading others to follow suit. This is extremely important because Belgium or the EU would not have the moral authority to pressurize countries like Tanzania to destroy their stockpiles unless they had first shown the way.
The moral high-ground extends beyond just an ethical show of force, Belgium’s destruction of its ivory stockpile raises the country above the confused mire of whether ivory is a sustainable economic resource or not. Instead, the act enters into the domain of irreproachable acts of morality. Morality is grounded in sympathy – it’s what causes us to break from our imperious, selfish revelry and economic pursuits and prompts us toward a pure act of generosity. By removing sympathy and relying solely on economic solutions to the elephant question we become, at best, ethically inert to the real horror. At worst, complicit in it, which could and does has murderous results. This was precisely the model the Nazis adhered to. Here the message is at it’s clearest. “This is not about ivory,” says Downes thought-provokingly, “it’s about elephants.”