Can Elephants Survive a Legal Ivory Trade? Debate Is Shifting Against It

It’s one of the more incendiary questions discussed in wildlife conservation circles: Should there be a legal trade in elephant ivory?

This debate has been waxing and waning since at least 1989, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to “ban” the international trade in ivory after a ferocious wave of poaching in Africa that left hundreds of thousands of elephants butchered.

Some conservationists say that a limited legal ivory trade is needed to satiate demand, especially in China, in a controlled manner.

Many others argue that the 1989 ban must be kept in place to protect elephants, especially now that poaching has once again risen to catastrophic levels. One hundred thousand elephants were slaughtered from 2010 through 2012, according to a study published in the August 19 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A legal trade, they say, would only lead to even greater demand for ivory.

Elizabeth Bennett, a longtime conservationist and vice president for species conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), says it has become clear that it is impossible to have a controlled trade in elephant ivory.

That was her conclusion in a recent essay she wrote in the scientific journal Conservation Biology. In an interview, Bennett says she examined the prospect for a legal market in ivory and concluded that because corruption in some countries among certain government officials is so pervasive, “it can’t be done.”

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Christina Russo is a freelance journalist. For nearly 15 years, she has worked as a producer for a number of public radio programs, including NPR/WBUR’s "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. Christina also freelances for Yale Environment 360, where her written work focuses mainly on wildlife conservation issues. She is the co-producer, with WBUR, of the nationally syndicated documentary on American zoos, From Cages to Conservation. She has written numerous articles about animals, including a story about caring for donkeys in Ethiopia; a veterinarian saving horses in Sonoma County, CA; an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand; and the work of pre-eminent whale biologist Roger Payne for her hometown newspaper, The Gloucester Daily Times.

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