Does Destroying Ivory Really Save Elephants?

A Kenya Wildlife Service ranger stands guard as 15 tonnes of ivory confiscated from smugglers and poachers is burnt to mark World Wildlife Day at the Nairobi National Park March 3, 2015. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

On March 3, we celebrated Africa Environment Day (also known as the Wangari Maathai Day) and the World Wildlife Day. Africa Environment Day was established in 2002 by the then Organization of African Unity to raise awareness of the various environmental challenges facing the continent. On December 20, 2013, the United Nations also declared March 3 as the World Wildlife Day.

A key environmental challenge that continues to face Africa is the massacre of wildlife such as elephants and rhinos by smugglers who engage in the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn. The lucrative market for ivory and rhino horn has seen the population of these animals decline dramatically.

Despite local and international efforts to halt illegal trade in these animal parts, including the international ban on ivory trade in 1989, the massacre of wildlife continues at alarming rates.

A common indicator of the success of many African governments' anti-poaching efforts is the quantity of ivory intercepted by authorities. As a result of these efforts, many countries have large stockpiles of ivory. Thus, while these efforts do not completely prevent the real problem of illegal killings of elephants, the interception of ivory does penalize the smugglers and reduce the volume of illegal ivory trade.

The question for the governments of these countries has been what they should do with the stockpiles of intercepted ivory that does not exacerbate the massacre of wildlife.

A common strategy adopted by many countries has been to destroy the stockpiles of Ivory. This has been the case not only for African countries but also for some developed countries that have intercepted ivory originating from Africa. The idea is to remove the ivory from the market and thus reduce the incentive for people to engage in smuggling.

In Kenya, the problem of elephant poaching has spiraled out of control and destroying ivory has become the common practice in dealing with the stockpiles. This practice started with President Daniel Arap Moi, who personally oversaw the burning of 12 tons of ivory in 1989. Likewise, President Mwai Kibaki torched stockpiles of ivory in 2011.

On March 3, President Uhuru Kenyatta marked Africa Environmental Day by burning 15 metric tons of ivory. Elsewhere, other countries such as France, China, the United States and the Philippines have destroyed ivory worth millions of dollars.

But does destroying ivory translate into less poaching? Unfortunately, we do not have good data to help fully answer this. Environmentalists consider such an approach as necessary to protect elephants. However, the observed increase in poaching of elephants does not seem to support the idea that destroying ivory and the ban on ivory trade are effective strategies in reducing poaching.

To the contrary, the strategy may, ironically, result in just the opposite effect: more poaching. But this is what economic theory would predict: Destroying stockpiles of smuggled ivory reduces the amount that enters the market and thus increases the value of available stocks. This increases the expected gain from poaching and thus more poaching is bound to be the result.

A 2014 study by the organization Save the Elephants revealed that about 100,000 African elephants were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012. This suggests that only a tiny fraction of poached ivory is actually intercepted.

Destroying ivory does not therefore seem to be an effective anti-poaching strategy. Yet selling the ivory by governments would, in a way, legitimize the trade of illegally obtained ivory. Even if investing the proceeds to boost wildlife protection may reduce poaching, there is no guarantee that poaching will be substantially reduced, especially where corruption is prevalent. Nevertheless, for many economists, destroying a valuable resource is hard to justify.

From the available data on the scope of poaching in Africa, it does not appear that the standard policies implemented in most of Africa to protect wildlife have been effective. Likewise, international efforts to ban trade in ivory do not seem to be achieving the desired results. Unfortunately, as economic theory predicts, many command and control policies tend to result in undesirable outcomes.

Though market-based solutions—as some libertarians advocate for—may have merit, they may not be fully effective in dealing with elephant poaching. Market-based approaches have been quite effective in some cases, such as the establishment of private game parks and the burgeoning private crocodile and ostrich farms, among other animals.

These are cases where it is possible to assign property rights to individuals who then have incentives to protect and maintain optimal populations of the animals. The ostrich population in some countries would probably be greatly depleted were it not for such market-based solutions to protection. In most countries, and for some of the wildlife, such purely private market solutions may not be feasible, such as the case of the elephant. But there are other viable market approaches to reduce the problem of poaching.

Standard economics theory teaches us that the problem with conservation, whether of fish, grasslands, forests, or wildlife, is really rooted in the absence of clearly defined and enforceable ownership rights. These resources are treated as common pool resources and the result is their depletion: overgrazing, deforestation, overfishing and overhunting of animals.

In the case of elephants, the lack of clearly defined and protected rights is responsible for poaching. The problem of poaching in Africa is compounded by the fact the communities surrounding the game reserves are often excluded from the benefits that originate from the wildlife.

Furthermore, in many cases, there is real conflict between farming communities and wildlife as they compete for scarce land. Thus, these communities are often marginalized by governments and do not see any value in protecting wildlife and are instead ready to collaborate with poachers.

A viable and long-term solution to the problem of poaching of elephants must focus on market principles and, in particular, transferring ownership rights to communities that would then have strong incentives to protect the wildlife. Such an approach must include transferring benefits originating from conservation efforts directly to communities.

Most importantly, governments must engage local communities in the management of the reserves, including transferring a dedicated share of revenues from the game reserves to the communities. Such an approach would make communities more vigilant in their anti-poaching efforts.

Communities should be directly involved in the policing of the reserves, which would greatly increase the costs of poaching. But governments must also do more to lift these communities from poverty and overall economic marginalization, which contributes to their involvement in poaching.

For example, local communities rarely share in the ownership of hotels that operate within the game reserves, which are dominated by international chains. There should be a deliberate policy to support the local communities to be part of these lucrative businesses that would greatly improve ownership and improve the protection of wildlife.

There are some good international examples that support the idea of community ownership and involvement in the management of wildlife as an effective approach. Although the various models differ in scope and approaches, they all focus on raising the communities' stake in conservation efforts.

A good example of a market-based approach that endows community ownership rights is the Namibian model of communal conservancies that involve the devolution of management and ownership rights to the local communities. Through this strategy, communities have control of the wildlife, are involved in protection initiatives and benefit directly from the income generated from the tourism trade.

Communities have established village councils to manage the resources and have formed partnerships with tour operators and take a share of the revenue from such operations. The communities are also engaged in operating tourist campsites in the area that generate considerable revenue to the people. As a result of this initiative, poaching in the communities has decreased radically. Those locals who were previously poaching collaborators are now fierce protectors of wildlife.

Destroying ivory, while symbolically important, is not a solution to poaching because it is does not deal with the problem associated with common pool resources. While it and other efforts, such as more stringent policing to prevent poaching and to intercept poached ivory, are important, more effective policies must focus on interjecting more market-based approaches that provide communities ownership rights to the wildlife, perhaps the most compelling reason for them to vigorously support anti-poaching activities.

Mwangi S. Kimenyi is Senior Fellow, Global Economy and Development, Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution and advisory board member of the School of Economics, University of Nairobi. This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution website.