Why eBay's ban on ivory will end up hurting the environment.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Dec. 30 2008 8:04 AM

eBay and Ivory

The auction site's ban on elephant products won't help the environment.

In November, Brendan Borrell wrote about eBay's coming ban on the sale of ivory products and why it may not be such a great idea. The ban goes into effect Thursday.

African Elephant. Click image to expand.
An African elephant

If, like me, you have always wanted to get a carved, elephant-ivory snuff box for that special someone, this holiday season may well be your last opportunity. The online auction site eBay announced on Oct. 20 that it would ban nearly all ivory sales on its auction sites effective Jan. 1. Last month, the company was embarrassed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which estimated that it was hosting an elephant-ivory trade in the United States worth $3.2 million per year.

This may seem like another example of corporate greenwashing—a way for the auction site to paper over its misdeeds and parade around as a concerned environmental steward. In fact, the new policy is directly at odds with mainstream conservationists. Just one week after eBay made its big announcement, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species—with support from WWF—was going forward with a one-time auction of government ivory stockpiles from elephants that either died of natural causes or had been culled in population-control programs in four southern African countries. These sales netted $15 million, earmarked for elephant conservation and local community-development programs. Although international laws governing the ivory trade are complex, the truth is that most of the ivory being sold on eBay was totally legal. More to the point, buying ivory online may actually be a good thing for conservation: The more snuff boxes we demand, the better chance that elephants and their ecosystems have to withstand the pressures of modernization.

Wild elephants are never going to be tolerated in Africa so long as locals cannot profit from the animals' most valuable asset: those 120-pound teeth. As journalist John Frederick Walker argues in his provocative new book, Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants(to be published in January), the high regard with which American zoo-goers hold these proboscideans is not shared by poverty-stricken farmers in Kenya, who must contend with 4-ton living bulldozers rampaging their cassava fields and threatening their lives. Flip through African newspapers, and you'll find lurid headlines describing trampled schoolchildren, panicked villagers, and nightly curfews. Americans would not put up with life under those conditions, yet we have imposed this imperial vision on a far-off continent that we imagine as our private zoo.

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The elephant problem is equally vexing inside the national parks of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, whose burgeoning elephant populations must be managed to avoid their overwhelming the ecosystem. Elephants are the largest living land mammal, each consuming as much as 600 pounds of vegetation a day and drinking 50 gallons of water. In 1970, a hands-off policy to Kenya's elephants in Tsavo National Park provided a bitter lesson to those who opposed culling. After ravaging the park's fragile vegetation during a season of drought, elephants began dying by the thousands. Animals whose meat could have supported the region's desperate farmers and whose ivory could have provided $3 million for conservation were rotting in the blazing sun. In the years since, South African wildlife managers have refined culling procedures to minimize trauma to elephant family groups, and they catalog and store ivory under lock and key in anticipation of future auctions.

But pragmatic approaches to elephant conservation took a blow in 1989, when celebrities Brigitte Bardot and Jimmy Stewart joined animal rights campaigns to fight the "elephant holocaust" being conducted by poachers and, by implication, wildlife managers. According to Walker, the WWF and the African Wildlife Foundation "felt it prudent … to keep quiet about the value of sustainable use policies." Although no African or Western countries initially supported a ban on the ivory trade, by the end of the year they were on the losing end of the battle for public opinion. On Oct. 8, in Lausanne, Switzerland, CITES listed African elephants as Appendix I, effectively cutting off ivory sales, putting Asian importers and carving shops out of business, and turning "white gold" into a social no-no. "In the aftermath of the decision," Walker writes, "the ivory market collapsed as ivory prices plummeted."

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