End African Elephant Poaching by Banning the Ivory Trade

The Honorable Tshekedi Khama, Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism for Botswana

A herd of elephants in Botswana

As Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, I bear a unique responsibility for safeguarding our nation’s magnificent wildlife. It is difficult to overstate the diversity and importance of such life. Not only in the ways it gives deeper meaning to our ancient land, but also economically.

Our national parks, game preserves and wildlife management areas constitute 25% of our country, attract 2.5 million tourists annually, sustain a tourism industry that employs one in ten citizens, and help us generate more foreign currency than any industry except diamonds. But all that is now at increasing risk, unless the world shuts down the ivory trade — permanently.

Honorable Tshekedi Khama, Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism for Botswana

According to the Great Elephant Census, a recent pan-African aerial survey of savanna elephant habitat led out of Botswana, our country boasts more elephants than any other nation — approximately 130,451 resident elephants and a further 60 000 transient elephants moving from neighbouring countries. Sadly, the spotters who counted so many live elephants also counted thousands of dead ones, their carcasses left to rot by ivory poachers who had cut off their tusks and smuggled them through global crime syndicates to foreign markets. Since the previous elephant census in 2010, we have lost elephants to poaching. Even with aggressive anti-poaching patrols, it’s hard to catch every poacher in a country the size of France.

Other countries in southern Africa — once thought safe from poachers — are suffering alarming losses, too. And in East Africa, the toll has been much worse. Tanzania and Mozambique lost more than half their elephants over the past seven years alone. And across the continent, poachers are responsible for a 30% decline between 2007 and 2014. Unless we are able to shut down the global ivory market, half of Africa’s elephants will likely be gone within a decade.

Fortunately, delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) — a treaty to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival — can help stop this unsustainable slaughter before it’s too late. Meeting this week in Johannesburg, these delegates are debating whether or not to ban all international and domestic ivory trade. I have strongly urged them to do so immediately.

President Seretse Ian Khama, Tourism Minister Tshekedi Khama and other officials at the unveiling of an elephant sculpture made entirely from ivory tusks at Gaborone’s international airport. PHOTO: Monirul Bhuiyan / Press Photo

In past decades, Botswana supported the idea of limited, legal ivory sales from countries that managed their elephant herds sustainably. We now support a total and permanent ban on the ivory trade, everywhere. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the most recent CITES-sanctioned sale of stockpiled ivory, which took place in 2008, actually stimulated global demand for carved tusks, trinkets and jewelry, which in turn fueled the current poaching crisis. Specifically, this sale sparked a 66% increase in illegal ivory production, and a 71% increase in ivory smuggling out of Africa.[1] Put simply, a threat to elephants anywhere is a threat to elephants everywhere.

For Africans, elephants are worth much more alive than dead.

For Africans, elephants are worth much more alive than dead. Poachers and ivory traffickers are stealing our heritage for a fraction of its value — a living elephant generates $1.6 million in tourism revenue over its lifetime, which is 76 times the value of its tusks on the black market.[2] And while the benefits of poached ivory flow primarily to foreign brokers and dealers, the benefits of live elephants accrue primarily to local communities in host nations, such as Botswana.

Banning the ivory trade won’t, on its own, save every elephant from poachers. But shutting down all ivory markets is a requisite element of a comprehensive conservation strategy. I invite you to examine the data and talk with the courageous rangers who are risking their lives to protect our heritage. Africa’s elephants cannot save themselves — only we can.