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Elly Pepper’s Blog

The Right Way to Protect Elephants

Elly Pepper

Posted March 27, 2014

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A few weeks ago, I read a fascinating study that elephants can determine a bunch of things including human gender, age, and even ethnicity from our voices. So I’m pretty sure they could have discerned my sadness as I read today’s New York Times op-ed criticizing the federal government’s steps to reduce elephant poaching.

Far from the “draconian” picture painted by the op-ed’s authors, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to restrict legal sales of ivory in the United States are simple, common sense measures that will pose mere inconveniences to a limited number of the American public when weighed against their purpose: to prevent the increasingly imminent extinction of African elephants.

mammaandbabe.jpg                                                     (C) Fish and Wildlife Service

In the United States it's generally legal to import and export antique ivory and to buy and sell African elephant ivory domestically, as long as it came the United States at least 25 years ago and is at least 100 years old at time of import.  As a result, the U.S. is the second most common destination for ivory in the world, and the legal market here fuels the continued poaching of elephants. Because it’s difficult and expensive to determine the age of an ivory item, many wildlife traffickers disguise their ivory as old, and thus legal, when it’s actually from recently killed elephants. The U.S. needs to crack down on legal ivory sales if we have any hope of ending illegal sales, and that’s exactly what the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rules, which would ban the import of most ivory into the U.S., restrict exports to antiques, and limit interstate sales, will do.

Just as importantly, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal recognizes that if we are going to ask other countries to restrict the sale of ivory in their domestic markets, we must be willing to do the same. While the op-ed’s authors are correct that in order to end the poaching crises we also need to reduce demand in Asia – how can we urge a country like China or Japan to stop consuming ivory when we’re doing nothing to reduce demand in our own country?

Will Americans need to be more vigilant about paper work and documentation regarding their ivory in the future under the new rules? Will they have to leave an ivory inlaid guitar at home in favor of one without ivory when setting off for their next concert tour? The answer to these questions is: yes.

But reversing the current trend towards elephant extinction isn’t going to be easy. Things have gotten bad. Really, really, bad.  Last year, more than 30,000 elephants were illegally shot in Africa. And if we are going to save these incredible, discerning creatures, every nation is going to have to do its part. 


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Michael LevineMar 27 2014 06:39 PM

Your comments show how ill-informed you are about the history of ivory as a venerated cultural material. How dare you say that a few "inconveniences" on a limited number of Americans is worth the saving of elephants. You missed the point of the whole submission to the NY Times. Do you really think that an experience antiques dealer will refuse the opportunity to purchase a 14th century Gothic diptych at the right price even if he can't put it out for sale in America? That significant object won't make it into an American museum, it will be put into his/her pocket and be sold at one of the major auction houses in Europe, where it will stay forever. And our cultural institutions here won't even have the opportunity to purchase it. That is smart policy? You will not reverse anything but make a lot of knowledgeable people very rich. Economics 101: The more scarce a material becomes, the higher the price. And it won't save an elephant. What is happening in Africa has nothing to do with Americans and we don't condone what is happening there. We all know that this is a symbolic move by Obama to win votes in November. If you want to really do something, go to China, who is the number one consumer of newly poached ivory. Get your facts straight before you become too emotional.

Mike ParedesMar 27 2014 09:33 PM

I agree wholeheartedly with you Elly, and you are not ill-informed. If you are agains the banning of the ivory trade in the US , you have something to gain from it, otherwise you would support it. The sheer numbers of the slaughter require the strong action that thankfully the Obama administration took. It will help. Yes, China is the number 1 importer, but we in the US are number 2. So to state that it is an "Africa problem" as one commenter did is ludicrous and untrue. Let's ban the ivory trade, once and for all.

Andrew WyattMar 29 2014 08:18 AM

While seemingly noble, these measures are largely symbolic and are likely to drive the price of ivory up by creating scarcity. Markets are driven by supply and demand. When the supply is reduced and the demand continues or increases, prices move up. Even the perception of scarcity puts upward pressure on markets. This is all Economics 101, and it applies equally to legal and illegal markets.

Read this related article entitled: Terrorists, Tusks and the Ivory Crush.

Andrew WetzlerMar 29 2014 01:50 PM

Andrew Wyatt, you may be right that supply and demand are "Economics 101" but inelastic demand is "Economics 201." If demand is high enough, increasing supply doesn't do much to reduce prices. Moreover, in some cases demand is so high that there is simply not enough potential supply to reduce prices, which could well be the case here. And, finally, if these measures are largely symbolic, as you say, then why would they affect the price one way or the other?

Andrew WyattMar 29 2014 09:05 PM

Andrew Wetzler- I agree that if demand is high enough that an increase in supply may not push prices down, but a decrease in supply, or even the perception of greater scarcity, can drive prices through the roof... and when I say that the move by FWS is symbolic, I mean that it will do very little to actually protect elephants; the action is just the kind of symbolic gesture government likes to make when the real work is too complicated or difficult... that way they can score political and PR points w/o really doing anything of real conservation value. Please read my article.

Robert swartzMar 30 2014 04:41 PM

The more you compound the lies about this topic, the more insensitive I become.

Heidi OstermanMar 30 2014 10:50 PM

All this talk about economics and "clever antiques dealers." That is missing the point. The POINT is to put the humane back into human and not kill everything on the planet because we feel so entitled. We are NOT the rulers of the earth, we are mere partipants. How ignorant of us to think that we can survive once we've killed off eveything else.

Steven SmithApr 1 2014 05:32 PM

I agree with you and an an ardent advocate for elephants. I love them as much as i could love a creature. But there are some misleading opinions that have become 'fact' for some and must be understood in context especially that the US is the number 2 consumer. There is a huge difference between the US consuming so-called legal pre-ban ivory and the Asian insatiable demand for black market ivory. The USFWS confirms that the US is not a significant contributor to the black market. I am not saying to not support the ban, but that these 'facts' are not as clear and simple as they appear. I have to agree that this, while a good move, will do little to stop poaching. As for the economics 101 or 201 or even 401, these models and theories are in part only as good as they are followed or enforced. The intention behind the sale to China was to flood the market and reduce prices. China held on to ivory, much like DeBeers with diamonds, essentially creating more demand and skyrocketing prices. But- we cannot go after China if we still sell it here I suppose.

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