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Doing wildlife justice to Malawi’s ivory stockpile

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The complexities of the associated legislation have led to much local debate as to whether Malawi’s ivory stockpiles should be sold or destroyed.

As the debate rages, it is important to note that the international trade in ivory was banned in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which Malawi is a signatory.

Malawi is keeping 4.1 tonnes stockpile of ivory valued at K5 billion.

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Malawi’s elephant population (together with all African elephant populations except South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe which are listed as Appendix II) is listed on Appendix I of CITES, which prevents all international trade. Therefore, it would be illegal to sell Malawi’s ivory on international markets, to do so would break international law and the repercussions on any country doing so would be significant. Even if Malawi left CITES, there would be nobody to sell to as the rest of the world abides by this convention.

In some countries there are still markets for ivory within their borders but these are generally closing down. Even in China, the biggest domestic market in the world, President Xi Jinping has pledged to put an end to domestic commercial trade of ivory. Malawi itself placed a domestic moratorium on any trade in ivory in 2014.

It is very unlikely that the international ban will be lifted. Some sales were allowed in 1999 and 2008. Instead of flooding the market with ivory to bring the price down it has been attributed to increasing demand and thus poaching. Trade in legal ivory provides a cover for illegal ivory because it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two. As a result it is extremely unlikely that CITES will ever agree to any sales again.

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And even if the ban was lifted, Malawi could not sell its ivory because Malawi’s stockpile is classified as seized ivory. According to CITES, seized illegal ivory may never be sold. This is consistent with its status as an unlawful product, and with international norms on the disposal of seized contraband. Therefore, only ivory from natural deaths or problem animal control can ever be considered for sale, and all seized ivory must either be disposed of or securely held forever. Note also that even after a court processes contraband ivory, the ivory cannot then be traded as a Government trophy – it is still classed as seized ivory, sourced through illegal means and therefore can never be sold.

Secondly, Malawi wouldn’t be eligible to trade ‘legal’ ivory either.

‘Legal’ ivory refers to ivory collected from natural deaths/ problem animals from control/ hunting with a licence whereas ‘illegal’ ivory refers to that procured through criminal activity e.g. poaching, trafficking. Countries like Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania do have significant amounts of ‘legal’ ivory in their stockpiles – but not Malawi.

There are four African countries with elephant populations listed as Appendix II and not Appendix I – South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. There is a moratorium on sales by these countries until at least 2017 and, considering the on-going threat to African elephant populations, little chance of a sale after that But, let’s for a moment entertain this unlikely possibility. Perhaps, Malawi could apply to have their elephant populations down-listed and thus apply for sales of legal ivory collected in the future? Again this is not viable.

CITES would refuse any application made by Malawi to down-list their elephant population for the foreseeable future given the innumerable local challenges faced (declining populations, poor law enforcement etc.).

Tanzania and Zambia applied to down-list their elephant populations in 2010 hoping to become eligible to sell ivory in another application down the line, and they were faring significantly better than Malawi is now. They were rejected.

Given the unique economics of the trade and the devastating impact it is having on Africa’s most iconic species, there is no easy comparison, but marijuana might be a helpful one for some relating to the ethics of holding on to the stockpiles ‘just in case’. Marijuana is a banned substance in Malawi, but it is legal in a few countries. The majority of the population would not support the storage of cannabis seized from criminals in the hope that it could be sold on to these markets at a future date in the unlikely event that international trade might become legal.

Malawi’s ivory is worth nothing to Malawi as it cannot be sold. Whilst Malawi cannot sell its ivory, criminals could. They have no respect for the law and are prepared to partake in organised crime and risk custodial sentences to profit from the illicit ivory markets. Time and again we have seen how Government stockpiles in other countries have been infiltrated and ivory has been stolen. There is nothing to suggest that Malawi would be any different. It is important to note that illegal wildlife trade is the 4th largest transnational crime in the world and has even been linked to terrorism. Malawi should be doing all it can to deter such criminalit within its borders.

It is also important to burn the ivory to remove the financial burden of security. The Department of National Parks and Wildlife is working to provide the best security possible with very limited funds and resources.

The destruction of the stockpile could save the money spent on security and those resources could be diverted elsewhere.

Some commentators have suggested that burning ivory does not make economic sense and that a better alternative would be to release the ivory onto the market to drive down the price and put the poachers and traffickers out of business. This argument put forward by Kenyan commentators is a helpful analogy:

Over-simplistic economic arguments like these are dangerous. The relation between supply, price and demand is much more complex than we are sometimes led to believe, and is often hard to predict. But we know that lowering the price of a product will not necessarily put anyone out of business if it stimulates demand and increases the volume of sales.

Think of mobile phones. Smart producers realised it was in their interest to reduce prices to tap into the vast potential market in Africa. The potential market for ivory is just as huge. The current population of China stands at 1.37 billion people— and rising—and surveys indicate that more that 80 percent of them would like to own some ivory. By releasing ivory for sale we will be playing into the hands of the traffickers by opening up more of this market for them to exploit.

There are no economic solutions that will stop the poaching and ivory trafficking in time to save Africa’s elephants. With the total population of African elephants standing at less than 500,000—and falling—the gap between the potential supply and potential demand is simply too wide.

The only way to save Africa’s elephants is to remove ivory altogether from the market. In other words, we need a political solution and not an economic one.

There are two complementary ways to do this: one is to attach a stigma to buying the product, and the other is to make it illegal. These approaches have been adopted with some success to shut down the trade in whale products and animal furs.

The ivory burn is a highly visible political statement of intent. As such it can make an important contribution towards raising awareness of the issues, stigmatising the purchase of ivory and galvanising global support for a total trade ban.”

By burning the ivory, Malawi can avoid international embarrassment associated with keeping it. Each year there is a stringent audit of ivory stockpiles for all countries who are signatories to CITES. If even a small amount of ivory was found to be ‘missing’, the world would know about it.

Imagine the headlines when coupled with the ivory burn postponements, the ongoing baseless ivory sale debate and embarrassments like inadequate sentencing of significant wildlife traffickers.

The economics of the ivory trade are complicated, but put simply leaking ivory into these black markets further fuels them and in turn encourages more poaching which has resulted in today’s elephant crisis. Thus some may claim that Malawi would be culpable, having actively chosen not to put ivory stockpiles out of economic use despite the risks Malawi has been identified as a soft target for wildlife criminals because of weak law enforcement and legislation and, sadly, stories of corruption.

Malawi has, at the very least, been used as a transit route for the biggest ivory seizures of all time. Destroying ivory stockpiles would help a great deal towards rectifying this, showing that Malawi has strong ethics, values its natural resources and its national security, rejects a trade which could result in the extinction of elephants and is a country that does not shy away from taking strong and decisive action.

Director of Parks and Wildlife Brighton Kumchedwa says Malawians need to appreciate that the ivory government is holding is of no value because international law outlaws trading of wildlife products.

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