Banning ivory won’t save any elephants

Barbara Amiel on the cold truth about banning and trashing ivory


James Gritz/Getty Images

Sometimes I wish I were the cold-hearted bitch I’m said to be. And in a sense, I am. Reason can make an icy roommate. Take the vanishing population of wild elephants. The heart bleeds at the sight of an infant elephant standing over the body of its beheaded mother, her hacked body now circled by vultures. Where the head should be, only a great gap of torn blood vessels and spongy flesh, looking like the stuffing a child might pull out of a doll. Buckets of water laced with cyanide placed in grazing grounds during the dry season are the bait and, in fact, the vultures will soon be dead too after eating the toxic carcass. Their death is deliberate collateral damage in elephant poaching: a cluster of vultures would alert rangers.

There are about 400,000 wild African elephants left. In 2012, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) estimated poachers murdered up to 22,000 and the figures for 2013 are said to be higher. An elephant has one baby every few years. Factor in natural deaths and do the math. I suppose it makes no difference to the equation that the elephant is listed among the most intelligent of animals. If this great pachyderm, the largest land creature on Earth, were only half as intelligent, the tragedy would be the same—except the realization that these animals understand death, have complex social relationships and grieve over each other’s lifeless bodies seems to make it all so much worse.

I thought banning the ivory trade would help end this horror show, that destroying stockpiles of ivory would incite shame in purchasers and devalue the commodity. But the cold truth is that banning and trashing ivory is not helping the situation, but making it worse. That bandwagon makes us feel moral but doesn’t do a bloody thing for those bloodied, mutilated bodies and their helpless infants.

There is a whiff of radical chic about the elephant crisis. Prince William reportedly wants Buckingham Palace to destroy the royal ivory collection. Smashing 1,711 exquisite objects is as senseless as decimating the antique obelisks in Rome on grounds they were made by slave labour. The problem can be resolved only by raising the value of live elephants rather than the tusks of dead ones.

Rationally, the more difficult it is to get ivory and the more scarce the elephant, the more status it possesses for the biggest customers of all, in newly rich China and in Japan. CITES banned international commercial trade in the organic mineral in 1989 but it is a bust in exterminating the ivory industry; perhaps it would be more effective regulating and managing it. This is not simply my view: It has been stated far more eloquently by advocates such as Daniel Stiles, a member of the IUCN/SSC African specialist group. Shame won’t affect ivory’s new poachers created by skyrocketing ivory prices. These are the ruthless gangs of organized crime who, unlike poachers of old, don’t take out an elephant or two, but kill a hundred or more at a time, transporting them through well-established criminal networks to the Far East. Ivory is a futures gamble: CITES sometimes approves limited sales of ivory, or the rules change and any freed ivory gets hoovered up by big speculators, including corrupt governments.

Last February, President Barack Obama banned sales of ivory in America. That should get a few antique dealers into prison. Try selling grandma’s piano with the ivory keys and you will be prosecuted for a class E felony with the onus on you to prove the ivory is more than 100 years old or imported before 1989. Last month, a Canadian string player studying in New York cancelled his audition in Winnipeg, fearing his bow with an ivory bridge would be confiscated on return to the States. He might have been able to get a certificate of registration, but customs officers are notoriously arbitrary in enforcement.

To the rural people of India, home of the Asian elephant, the elephant is not an icon but a large hairless rat that destroys crops and kills people. For them, the elephant has only negative economic value. They need compensation or a view of the elephant as an asset. As weak and corrupt African governments strengthen, they come to realize live elephants have significant tourist value. Perhaps elephants could be farmed and carefully culled for a sustainable ivory industry? Surely it’s more useful to spend money looking into that than catching tourists bringing back ivory bangles from Asian countries where it is legal to carve ivory but the supply is drying up.

I love elephants, have adopted two and support workers in the field such as Dame Daphne Sheldrick of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, labouring in Kenya to heal and rehabilitate orphaned elephants. But I hold certain principles dear, not simply for doctrinaire purposes. Governments can proscribe people’s activities and declare them illegal. Prohibition outlawed liquor and, in so doing, destroyed small shopkeepers and enabled organized crime; outlaw insider trading and then information—the natural commodity of the industry—becomes more precious and sought. Declare war on drugs and its funding buys guns for gangs while drug use prospers. Ban steroids for athletes, ban lascivious looks by men, ban politically incorrect words, but none of this works and the consequences are only an ever-narrowing circle of freedom in human affairs. I applaud the festivities on behalf of elephants and film stars speaking out on their plight. But we can’t shame the Japanese into buying wood hankos instead of prized ivory ones.

My heart wants to ban ivory and make an exception to principle for this wonderful beast, but many people have matters they feel should be exceptions. The rational consequences are best faced: Ban ivory, destroy stockpiles, and both freedom and elephants will disappear.

Filed under:

Banning ivory won’t save any elephants

  1. elephants are complex animals that require no one to involve thier social relationship and cannot thrive in captivity.

    they cannot be farmed or culled. otherwise thier lives will be wasted.


  2. True to form Madame. We must ask however if you have any ivory artifacts and jewelery or sold them; or at the very least donated the proceeds of to charity?

  3. You seriously claim to love elephants. Elephants will surely disappear if we resolve this extremely disturbing and tragic issue by raising the value of live elephants rather than the tusks of dead ones or if elephants are farmed and carefully culled for a sustainable ivory industry. Go back to the drawing board on this one or leave the whole subject alone.

  4. Who is Barbara Amiel to be declaring “the cold truth about banning and trashing ivory”? For heavens sake, I have never even heard of her. A follower of Daniel Stiles, who recently published the same opinion in a New York Times article co-authored with an ivory trader? Fine, but people who haven’t paid a lot of attention to this issue should know that the following people just expressed the opposite opinion in an open letter in the Washington Post to the Obama administration encouraging them to hold firm on new regulations on the sale of ivory products: Jane Goodall, Phd, DBE; Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants; the International Fund for Animal Welfare; the World Wildlife Fund; the African Wildlife Foundation; the Association of Zoos and Aquariums; the Wildlife Conservation Network; the Wildlife Conservation Society, and many others, including Tiffany&Company, Disney, and an auction house. Barbara Amiel is fostering orphans in the care of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, yet does not choose to follow their lead in passionately advocating for a complete ban on the sale of ivory. Would she like her foster babies to grow up into adults with tusks and then be culled so that ridiculous trinkets can be made of their body parts? How do you go about farming elephants? Do you kill them when they are a certain age, or do you wait for them to die, which can be a long time since their natural lifespans are almost as long as ours? Or do you dart them and saw off their tusks, which belong to them, not us and which they need? Culling? This is a brutal practice. How do you go about that? Do you kill the matriarchs? You leave grieving, stressed families. In an elephant family, every member is valued and loved, and the matriarchs with the biggest tusks are the leaders and protectors. Kill the bulls? How many bulls will be available to supply the demand from the Far East? Elephants are not liquor or drugs or steroids or words. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, whom the author professes to support, says, “They are just like us, only better.” She would be horrified by the arguments in this piece. Some things are just immoral. And one of those things is the idea that in the name of “freedom”, it is okay to kill elephants so that vanity objects can be made from their body parts.

  5. Everyone concerned about the plight of elephants shares the frustration of how to deal with poaching, and the human- elephant environment conflicts. Farming elephants for ivory is not the answer. Aside from the obvious reasons that have to do with where this animal sits on the complex mammal scale ( very high), farming will do nothing at all to decrease poaching but only escalate demand. Aside from the ethics, it is logistically absurd. Elephants do not reproduce until they are roughly twelve years old, have a 22-month gestation period, and an average of seven offspring, whose tusks grow very slowly over a lifetime. Hardly ideal stats for profitable large scale ivory farming, and the reason we are losing them at such an alarming rate now. However crushing stockpiles, banning ivory, strengthening anti-poaching laws, educating populations on the real price of ivory, building elephant corridors along migratory routes have all have been shown to revive regional populations. At a time when the world is becoming very serious about a final push to rescue the elephant from certain extinction, this is not an opinion piece that serves the issue. Disappointing, to say the least.

  6. Farming won’t save the elephants – Simon Jenkins’ premise is a fantasy | Will Travers

  7. Dame Daphne Sheldrick and the DSWT are strong proponents for a worldwide ban on all ivory trade – see why at: Also see Bryan Christy’s excellent National Geographic article ‘Ivory Worship’ and Born Free’s recently released report ‘Ivory Curse’. A worldwide ban in urgently needed if elephants are to be saved from extinction. Furthermore another good article which explains why flawed economics will not save elephants

  8. Seriously? What a laughable article, the fact that MacLean’s printed it as a serious piece makes me ashamed to be Canadian. When did MacLeans become a cheap supermarket rag? Let’s get some thoughtful (researched) writers who have a clue.

  9. Ms. Amiel flatters herself by thinking her perspective is anchored in reason. Seven billion people on the planet, and each one of us should have the freedom to buy ivory?! The “legal” trade – buying and selling elephant body parts wrought from immense human and animal suffering – serves as a cover for the illegal trade, those dark forces using blood ivory to fund terror, destabilizing Africa, destroying ecosystems, and slaughtering a species. But back to this concept of “freedom.” Freedom is not some universal truth. We decide as a society what freedoms are acceptable or not. The ivory trade is more analogous to human trafficking than it is to a market for drugs or alcohol. Should people also have the freedom to buy and sell human beings? People used to have the freedom to own slaves. Yeah, pretty absurd. The trade in ivory is unethical, immoral and completely unsustainable. It’s time for the world to relegate it to history. Fortunately many people, possessing both heart and reason, understand this.

  10. Wow, this article is laughable. It’s just shocking that a lay person would pose as an expert solutionist by stating her wacky idea of resolve for saving elephants, is farming and culling. This idea is just beyond comprehension, bizarre and impossible. They’re very complex and beautiful creatures and their teeth belong to them! It’s ludicrous.
    Based on this crazy idea, I have to ask if you’re a shill in hiding for the hunting lobby and not actually supporting the movement to save the elephants of Africa? It seems as though you’re hiding behind a smoke screen almost by being a foster mom. I’m sure Daphne Sheldrick would find your solution and statements about these beautiful creatures absurd.

  11. Freedom is not the issue here, sorry. Just how does this author propose to stop poaching and save these sentient beings? Selling ivory stockpiles has paradoxically increased poaching. Would that this writer would get the facts straight before indulging in a libertarian rant. It is difficult to contain my anger when reading this; how many readers will be duped?

  12. paying the poachers to shoot the mostly america trophy hunters , will save the elephants …

  13. Very disappointing… We are talking about the LIVING BEINGS!!!!!!This “negative economic value” makes me believe,that author should never come up with any article or comments about animals..All this, what she has written, sounds immoral and unacceptable,actually.Even if 1 % of animals will survive,by banning this criminal ivory trade,it must be stopped!!!Humans must learn to respect LIFE..Sooner – better,we are loosing animals,we are loosing birds,insects,forests,each living being must be protected and respected,our life depends on them..Not?..

  14. This comment has been removed.

  15. Something for you to read Barbara over lunch today…

    Letter to US Fish and Wildlife
    Chris Mercer, Campaign Against Canned Hunting.

    I refer to the hysterical letter of protest by hunting fanatic Ron Thomson to US Fish and Wildlife, complaining angrily about the decision to temporarily suspend imports of elephant trophies taken in Zimbabwe and Tanzania for the rest of 2014.

    First we’d like to apologise to USFW for the tone of this 20-page rant. Not all South Africans are so abusive and discourteous.

    In this letter, he attacks your culture, motives and competence because of the suspension, likening the desire of USFW to protect elephants in Africa as the same as “trying to enforce Christianity on to an Islamic state”.
    Africans, he claims, have no culture of protecting wildlife, only in its commercial exploitation.

    He challenges the reason given by USFW that “there has been a significant decline in the elephant population” on the basis that it conflicts with his “belief” (unsupported by any research) that there are far too many elephants in Africa.

    Finally he laments the failure of African governments to continue regular elephant culls after the trade ban on ivory in 1989, claiming that “the sale of ivory paid for the culling exercise.”
    In other words, he argues that the only way elephant populations can be properly managed is if African governments are allowed to sell the ivory of the slain elephants in order to pay for the cost of killing them.

    So what is he asking USFW to do?
    He wants you to get out of the way and let the hunters kill as many elephant as they want. His main reason is his belief that there are “tens of thousands of elephants who should be killed.”
    But this reason, even if true, does not logically support his plea. Sport hunters play no useful role in reducing elephant populations, because “hunters selectively shoot only elephant bulls.” Hunting certainly harms social cohesion and herd dynamics, but it leaves the breeding cows alone.
    What he is really calling for is a massive culling exercise. Culling is the exact opposite of sport hunting. The goals of the two are mutually exclusive. Culling is a para-military operation where whole herds are rounded up and liquidated. The aim is to drastically reduce overall populations.
    Expressing his argument as a syllogism, he is contending:
    1. There are too many elephants in Africa, and they should be killed.
    2. Hunters kill elephants.
    3. Therefore, hunting is good.

    But why is someone, who wants to see tens of thousands of elephants killed, promoting the sport hunting of elephants? It makes no sense at all.
    Thomson is really arguing that massive indiscriminate slaughter, either by government killing or by elephant poachers, benefits the ecology far better than hunters.
    Does he realize that the implication of his arguments? Is he actually calling for more elephant poaching?

    Let’s deal with some of his other extraordinary claims:-
    1. A poaching frenzy.
    He claims that because of the one year suspension of import of elephant trophies, poachers will invade all the hunting concessions in Tanzania, causing mayhem. This claim wrongly assumes:
    1. that this temporary suspension amounts to a total ban on all hunting.
    2. that all hunters will immediately abandon their concessions.
    3. that hunters are the only force for protecting wilderness.

    2. Starvation!
    He claims melodramatically that the African staff employed by the hunters will not only be put out of work by this temporary suspension, but that they will “starve.” Thomson’s tender concern for the digestion of the natives again ignores the fact that the temporary suspension only affects elephant trophies. The hunting fraternity will continue to kill all other species freely.

    3. Philanthropy:
    He alleges that “hunting is the best way to take wealth from the rich people of the first world and give it to the poor people of Africa”.
    What a sweeping statement! The money from hunting goes mainly to the hunting operators. The “poor people of Africa” get only the crumbs from the hunting industry’s table.

    I’m sure that USFW is perfectly able to see through this monument to crooked thinking and muddled reasoning.

    I leave you with this piece of self-congratulation in his letter:
    He boasts: “I hunted and killed several thousand elephant over a five year period in the Zambezi Valley.
    In 1971 – 2, I was lead hunter in reducing the elephant population in Gona-re-Zhou game reserve by 2,500 animals…
    I have had a very distinguished career. ”

    • Nice going !

  16. Dear madam,

    I generally poo-poo comments on OUR wildlife in Africa from First World comments as they generally don’t have the foggiest notion of what goes on in their own back yards, never mind ours 6000 miles away.
    The whole concept you describe is a recipe for disaster.
    Rather focus on the wolf slaughtering going on under your own noses, exactly what our elephants will be facing with your theories.
    And while bonnie William is burning down the palace let him return all the crown jewels they stole from Africa as well.
    Hmmm…..better tell ol’ Ebony & Ivory to change his tune as well.

  17. I wonder what timescale Barbara Amiel envisages for her ivory farming plan? Twenty years? forty? sixty? It takes an elephant’s lifespan to produce tusks – the elephant population, reducing as it is, cannot wait that long. She says she loves elephants, yet she would see them treated as a commodity, killed for their tusks to be made into trinkets. How does she reconcile the adoption of two orphaned elephants at the Sheldrick Trust with the prospect of their death for this cruel trade? The current poaching crisis was set in motion by the release in 2008 of “legal” ivory by CITES; the reopening of the Chinese carving workshops and corrupt traders. The ban needs to be enforced. Simplistic solutions like “elephant farms” will not save the species.

  18. Barbara Amiel’s article stating that ivory bans and ivory crushes won’t help elephants is ill-informed, and irresponsible. One of the prongs of the multi-pronged solution to saving the elephant species (which was safe just 7 years ago) is to reduce or eliminate demand for their ivory. If countries like Canada and the U.S. allow the ivory trade, what kind of credibility do we have with China to ask them to ban it, which would surely save the species, and fast.

    A government- sanctioned ivory trade creates a huge market, much smaller than if it were a black market. Also, it perpetuates the immorality that ivory is a product that we have a right to have. We don’t. Only elephants need ivory, and until people like Ms. Amiel realize that (farming elephants? Really?), elephants will not be safe.

    Michael Paredes

  19. Barbara Amiel’s ill-informed article is repugnant to all elephant advocates working hard to pass ivory bans, to the human race for continuing to glorify elephants’ tusks for trinkets, and most of all to the elephants. Does this woman not have one ounce of decent regard for the fact that elephants are highly intelligent, self-aware, social and sentient creatures – whose tusks are the least of what we should value them for? Elephants’ tusks belong to the elephants, not to us.

    Has she done any research into the history of the ivory trade and the elephant poaching crisis? If she had, she would know that the CITES one-off sales, especially the 2008 sale that included selling to China, fueled the current poaching crisis. Thirty-five thousand elephants are being slaughtered and their faces hacked off every year for ridiculous carvings, chopsticks, jewelry and trinkets, because once China got a taste for ivory again, they fired up their 37 ivory carving factories and the poaching skyrocketed. The 1989 ban was working, and elephant populations were recovering, until the CITES one-off sales. So what does Ms. Amiel think will happen if ivory is “regulated and managed”? There’s no possible way to do that. Not to mention that the vast illegal ivory trade is funding terrorist groups.

    And the very notion of farming and culling elephants – to raise and kill elephants for their teeth, to make useless trinkets for egotistical people who want status symbols, is morally and ethically bankrupt. I’m sorely disappointed in this writer’s myopic and ignorant views, and in MacLean’s for publishing such a damaging article. Most major elephant research and advocacy NGOs are working to stop the killing and ban all ivory trade worldwide. Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, founder of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, stated that ivory should be totally outlawed. I stand with her, as do millions of others. Why doesn’t Barbara Amiel?

  20. What utter bollocks !! Of course banning ivory will help ! Anybody found with tusks to sell should be very severely dealt with and poachers shot ! An extremely harsh deterrent is desperately needed NOW !! So it just isn’t worth their while …and anyone who could stomach having an ivory trinket or even piano needs a slap knowing where it came from ! Would you like a piano made of human teeth ??? We need to do all we can now before its too late ! Enough is enough !!

  21. This article is very misleading and can only help elephants to become extinct quicker. It is very counterproductive for the survival of elephants on this earth and gives people a completely wrong understanding of the whole situation.

    The author obviously is not informed about what a total trade ban in ivory means. It is common knowledge nowadays that the total trade ban on ivory of 1989 reduced poaching extremely and elephant populations recovered – because the price of ivory fell sharply! Only the trade exceptions with CITES allowed after this total trade ban encouraged poaching to the extent that we see now. The trade of legal ivory always means, that illegal trade is booming! i.e. poaching is rampant!

    I cannot believe that someone who ‘likes’ elephants and fostered elephant orphans at DSWT can propose to cull elephants for selling their ivory?!

    Also the author obviously does not understand what the destruction of ivory stockpiles mean. They are not only a signal for denying the sales of ivory. It means that if ALL ivory is destroyed and nothing is there in the market any more, there can be no trade in it any more. No trade – no demand – no poaching.

    Elephants urgently need back the total trade ban on ivory of 1989, all elephants need to be set back on Appendix I, to the ultimatively protected animals. There may never be trade exceptions again. Otherwise poaching and illegal trade will never stop and elephants will be extinct within a decade.

  22. Guess who won’t be winning any awards for investigative journalism any time soon. So far this year China destroys ivory stockpile in a step forward to saving Africa’s wildlife. Hong Kong destroys seized ivory. France & Belgium destroys illegal ivory stocks and Tanzania destroys $50m ivory stockpile in an effort to save elephants from extinction. Destroying ivory stockpiles sends a strong message to poachers that the world is serious and action is being taken against the elephant-poaching crisis. World leaders are putting their heads together in an effort to combat wildlife crime and efforts are being made to ban all ivory trade worldwide. Expert conservationists all agree that the ivory trade has to be completely banned and all ivory stocks destroyed. Meanwhile in an office somewhere in Canada Ms. Barbara Amiel writes an article based on regurgitated information from a few economists blogs on the economic value of not destroying ivory. I will refrain from making my “funny farm” joke about her ill informed article, as this subject is no laughing matter.

    • Cheers Carol. Well played.

    • Agree, Carol. I’ve heard they have lovely straitjackets at the Funny Farm. They would certainly suit Ms. Amiel.

  23. Dear Foolish Author,
    If you could simply escape your endless greed you could come from a perspective that includes a solution. A world that doesn’t covet sacred objects for personal greed. “Sometimes I wish I were the cold-hearted bitch I’m said to be.” Well said? It’s clear that you’re an unknown writer pushing a talking point, and that you know you’re being a ‘cold-hearted bitch’ by doing so.