This year two African countries want to overturn the ban on trade in ivory at a Convention on trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting that will take place in Doha. Tanzania and Zambia claim that heir elephant herds are ‘healthy’ and that ivory, a valuable resource, should be traded to help conserve wildlife and alleviate poverty. Sounds compelling, the only problem is that the elephants have to contribute their teeth in order for this to work. Some people don’t see the difference between harvesting timber and killing elephants to harvest ivory.
Are elephants just a source of a valuable commodity, ivory? Or do elephants deserve special treatment? Most elephant scientists are against the killing of elephants for ivory. They believe that it is unethical. In a recently published book, “Elephants on the Edge”, G. A. Bradshaw reviews decades of field research by scientists like Joyce Poole, Cynthia Moss, Katy Payne and Iain Douglas-Hamilton, as well as experiences in American zoos and circuses. She concludes that most experts believe it morally unethical to treat elephants and other sentient species as commodities and argues that elephants are more like us than we had ever imagined. In fact she goes further and says that we have much to learn about ourselves from them.
A recent elephant rescue in India is a case in point. On January 10th a mother elephant drowned in a 15ft-deep reservoir after helping its calf stay afloat until rescue arrived. It is believed that the mother plunged into the reservoir to save her baby which had accidentally fallen in. The reservoir had been created to contain water for fire fighting. She held her 6th month old baby above water for hours until rescuers could pull it to safety. Sadly she drowned in the process. Isn’t that exactly what any human being would do?
Wild elephants are far more humane than humans and scientists like Bradshaw, Poole, Moss, Douglas-Hamilton, Payne and many others believe that the extraordinarily strong social bonds between individual elephants and their families, their incredible memory, and high intelligence, make it necessary for us to view elephants in the same way that we view our fellow humans. If we can change our understanding of these huge animals, then the consequences of culling, captivity, isolation, ivory trade and separation from loved ones becomes as unethical as the slave trade, apartheid and torture.
At the end of the day the protest against the trade in ivory will have to be led by Africans if the rest of the world is to take any notice which makes Kenya’s campaign so powerful. But as long as the Chinese and other Asians markets continue to provide markets for ivory trinkets and refuse to implement domestic enforcement, a renewed ban on trade in ivory will fail and we will continue to lose elephants.
Most people believe that the blame falls squarely at the feet of the Chinese government which protects citizens who are illegal traders, does not crack down on their citizens overseas, and does not do enough to prevent ivory from entering international borders. This is what China has to say about the involvement of Chinese nationals in the illegal ivory trade
“The embassy (in Kenya) feels sorry that there were several Chinese nationals found in possession of ivories in JKIA. Actually they all came from other African countries and were in Kenya for transit. They bought ivory products like bangles and necklaces from certain African countries as souvenirs that are available openly in the local market. Many of them are first time tourists to Africa, and are not familiar with international practices on ivory. They are actually distinct from smugglers we normally talk about. Anyway, they violated the Kenyan law out of ignorance and they have learnt their lessons.”
Shame on China!