Why trade bans failed to protect the elephants in the 1980s

An article from the Economist in 2008 argues that trade bans fail for some species for three reasons:

1. The trade ban has served to increase the price of rhino horn, but demand has stayed strong—and so, therefore, has the incentive to poach. The resulting illegal trade has proved hard to combat.

2. Bans may cut out legal wildlife trade, but… they undermine efforts to conserve animals and plants in the wild and may even create incentives to get rid of them

3. Bans needs to be underpinned by strong property rights regimes in the range states. Leaving elephants for example on open access lands, allowed them to be heavily “mined” – a tragedy of the commons. This can be remedied through giving landowners and communities enforceable property rights over the resource.

The article refers to a paper in International Review of Environmental and Resource Economics by Prof Tim Swanson, now heading up a faculty at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.


Photo; najeebkhan2009, Flickr

Swanson explains the decline of the elephant in four African range states Tanzani, Chad, Zambia and Zaire as a (italics added by me):

“straightforward result of these states’ determinations to implement an open access regime.

Why would these states elect to implement open access in regard to an obviously
valuable resource? In short, the elephant was not perceived to be worthy of investment,
in regard to land, stocks or the management services required to manage them. Each
elephant requires about one-half square kilometer of good grazing land for its sustenance
(Caughley and Goddard 1975). Average life expectancy is about 55 years (Hanks 1972).
Therefore, it represents a substantial commitment of resources to provide for a single
elephant’s livelihood. The resources required for the sustenance of the millions of these
creatures that recently roamed Africa would represent a substantial portion of that
continent’s land area. In addition, few elephants are stationary within an area of a few
hectares; they travel widely in search of food, and crops are at particular risk. For these
reasons, there are substantial negative externalities experienced by those living in the
rural areas of a country that has a significant elephant population. Also, the management
of access to the population would not be as inexpensive as with a more sedentary animal.
Combined with its slow growth rate and the perceived absence of significant international
markets for its products, the pressures for the removal of a substantial portion of the
African elephant population from the lands of Africa must have been intense.
Unofficial open access policies were then a good method for mining the vast numbers
of surplus elephants, from the perspective of aid-sensitized African government. The
criminalization of the off-take of ivory preserves international appearances, while the
absence of resources applied to elephant protection allows the mining to continue apace.
There is, in addition, the side benefit of the revenues derived from sales of seized ivory.
Virtually the entirety of the trade in ivory during that decade (ranging between 500
and 1000 tonnes per annum) was derived from poached ivory sales that were licensed
after seizure. This arms-length approach to the industry preserves appearances while
fostering the removal of the species from the land.
In short, the elephant’s decline has been largely the result of an implicit decision to
undertake mining on the part of a few of the range states. The decline of the African
elephant during the 1980s, and the ivory trade it spawned, was a direct result of these
disinvestment decisions by the state and the management regime that was chosen to
implement disinvestment in certain states (Swanson 1993, 1994).
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