How should African elephants be protected from poachers? Just passing laws that elephants should not be harmed is clearly an insufficient policy, because many governments across Africa have limited ability to enforce such laws. Thus, two complementary policies are often suggested. One is to encourage local people who live near Africa's elephants to help protect them and their habitat by making the elephants a valuable economic resource. For example, local people may see economic benefits from tourists who come to see the elephants. A second proposal is for other countries to ban imports of ivory--or at least to ban imports that are not certified as coming from elephants that were killed as part of a sustainable wildlife management plan.
But these policies aren't working to protect elephants. Brian Christy provides a journalistic overview of the situation in "Ivory Worship," appearing in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic. The entire article is a great read, with all sorts of detail about ivory poaching in Africa and markets for ivory in the Philippines, China, Thailand, and elsewhere. Here, I'll just offer a smattering of quotations scattered throughout the article on some of the main points that relate to the policy choices on how best to protect elephants.
"Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade, and seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years. ... Still, according to Kenneth Burnham, official statistician for the CITES program to monitor illegally killed elephants, it is “highly likely” that poachers killed at least 25,000 African elephants in 2011. The true figure may even be double that. "
"[A] global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989. ... At the time of the ivory ban, Americans, Europeans, and Japanese consumed 80 percent of the world’s carved ivory. ... . African ivory brought into a country before 1989 may be traded domestically. And so anyone caught with ivory invokes a common refrain: “My ivory is pre-ban.” Since no inventory was ever made of global ivory stocks before the ban, and since ivory lasts more or less forever, this “pre-ban” loophole is a timeless defense."
"Not all countries agreed to the [ivory] ban. Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Malawi entered “reservations,” exempting them from it on the grounds that their elephant populations were healthy enough to support trade. In 1997 CITES held its main meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe declared that elephants took up a lot of space and drank a lot of water. They’d have to pay for their room and board with their ivory. Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia made CITES an offer: They would honor the ivory ban if they were allowed to sell ivory from elephants that had been culled or had died of natural causes. CITES agreed to a compromise, authorizing a one-time-only “experimental sale” by the three countries to a single purchaser, Japan. In 1999 Japan bought 55 tons of ivory for five million dollars. Almost immediately Japan said it wanted more, and soon China would want legal ivory too.... "
"In a 2002 report China warned CITES that a main reason for China’s growing ivory-smuggling problem was the Japan experiment: “Many Chinese people misunderstand the decision and believe that the international trade in ivory has been resumed.” Chinese consumers thought it was OK to buy ivory again. ... By 2004 China had forgotten its concerns and petitioned CITES to buy ivory.... In July 2008 the CITES secretariat endorsed China’s request to buy ivory, a decision supported by Traffic and WWF. Member countries agreed, and that fall Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe held auctions at which they collectively sold more than 115 tons of ivory to Chinese and Japanese traders."
"[I]t also meant, according to CITES, that China could now do its part for law enforcement by flooding its domestic market with the low-priced, legal ivory. This would drive out illegal traders, who CITES had heard were paying up to $386 for a pound of ivory. Lower prices, CITES’s Willem Wijnstekers told Reuters, could help curb poaching. Instead the Chinese government did the unexpected. It raised ivory prices. ... China also devised a ten-year plan to limit supply and is releasing about five tons into its market annually. The Chinese government, which controls who may sell ivory in China, wasn’t undercutting the black market—it was using its monopoly power to outperform the black market. Applying the secretariat’s logic that low prices and high volumes chase out smugglers, China’s high prices and restricted volumes would now draw them in. The decision to allow China to buy ivory has indeed sparked more ivory trafficking, according to international watchdog groups and traders I met in China and Hong Kong.And prices continue to rise. ... By all accounts, China is the world’s greatest villain when it comes to smuggled ivory. In recent years China has been implicated in more large-scale ivory seizures than any other non-African country. ..."
"The genie cannot be returned to her bottle: The 2008 legal ivory will forever shelter smuggled ivory. There is one final flaw in the CITES decision to let China buy ivory. To win approval, China instituted a variety of safeguards, most notably that any ivory carving larger than a trinket must have a photo ID card. But criminals have turned the ID-card system into a smuggling tool. In the ID cards’ tiny photographs, carvings with similar religious and traditional motifs all look alike. A recent report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that ivory dealers in China are selling ivory carvings but retaining their ID cards to legitimize carvings made from smuggled ivory. The cards themselves now have value and are tradable in a secondary market. China’s ID-card system, which gives a whiff of legitimacy to an illegal icon, is worse than no system at all."
In short, Brian Christy's essay makes a plausible case that a ban on imported ivory has some possibility of reducing incentives for elephant poaching. His article doesn't address the question of how much tourists coming to look at elephants can provide an economic incentive to protect them. But he makes a strong prima facie case that trying to have regular large sales of legally harvested ivory is a fiasco, more likely to encourage and facilitate additional smuggling than to undercut it.