Changing Planet

ESSAY: Infighting Over Whether to Trade in Elephant Ivory and Rhino Horn Jeopardizes Both Species

By Michael Schwartz

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Isaac Newton’s third law of motion is certainly an adequate illustration of the ongoing pugilism between pro-trade and anti-trade advocacy groups concerning the battle to protect remaining elephant and rhinoceros populations in Africa.

Having read more than my fair share of literature on both sides of the debate, it’s painfully clear that there are potential defects at each end of the spectrum—one of which is theoretical for the time being, while the other may be ushering in extinction through a tidal wave of good intentions.

To better understand the fallacies, it’s imperative to recognize the dual sincerity from pro- and anti-trade proponents to save Africa’s beloved megafauna. Neither group would defend its viewpoint so vehemently were it not for an unambiguous zeal to turn the tables on the wanton slaughtering elephants and rhino to satisfy ivory and horn appetites.

But the key word to focus on is illegal. That’s where the passion for protection takes on a dismal downward spiral—separating the unified objective among conservationists into splinter factions, with verbal altercations commonplace, and contradictory evidence vigorously highlighted to underpin opposing claims.

Facts—or Arguments—To Justify the Narrative?

Pro-traders want a legal, regulated trade to offset poaching by virtue of what they view as negligent, emotionally reinforced ban policies with no grounding in science or economics.

Anti-traders see illegality as an immutable concept in support of the right for wildlife to thrive, while showcasing their own scientific findings to counter pro-trade recommendations.


Photograph by Roby Gianni, courtesy of AWF
Photograph by Roby Gianni, courtesy of AWF


The mounting affirmation from both camps is overwhelming, even dizzying, to the point where one questions whether either is solely grounded in irrefutable facts or merely cast into the dispute as a means to justify the narrative.

Nothing emphasizes this more succinctly than animal devotees who make use of cookie-cutter platitudes, with a limited understanding of conservation and the complexities of human nature, or dispassionate scientists who chide the earnestness of their activist counterparts. Still, it can be suggested that neither outlook in its purest form will effectively end the onslaught.

Deaf Ears

Despite the vigor of anti-trade enthusiasts, there’s no denying that prohibitions on the trade in ivory and rhino horn will always be ignored by high-level criminal syndicates operating within the black market. The same can be said of impoverished Africans contracted to carry out the poaching.

Beefing up anti-poaching security and increasing penalties, while certainly necessary, has not put a damper on a network historically acclimated to working outside the parameters of law—the factories in Asia, poachers on the ground, government agents turning a blind eye to the carnage in exchange for clandestine payoffs.

The sheer size of certain national parks and game reserves in Africa notwithstanding, coupled with insufficient wildlife protection owing in large part to conservation budget shortages, is enough to recognize that altruism alone will not suffice.

There are also compelling theories that simply turning off supply through bans and the destruction of stockpiled contraband while demand remains high may be paradoxically contributing to increased poaching rates by way of speculative hoarding.


Ivory crush photograph by Barbara von Hoffman, courtesy of AWF
Illegal wildlife products ready for crush. Photograph by Barbara von Hoffman, courtesy of AWF


Anti-trade acolytes usually tout education as the panacea when confronted with a legal trade premise. But much like the seemingly endless effort to reduce poverty in Africa, this approach may take longer than elephants and rhino have.

The sad reality is that proclaiming a commodity unlawful will not counteract its remunerative value, and despite the promises of conservation coalitions, undertakings to date have lacked a powerful enough punch to deal a significant blow to criminal operations.

For pro-traders, a properly regulated trade has the potential of offsetting the black market. They argue that introducing raw ivory and horn from natural wildlife mortality in lieu of poaching, from existing confiscated stockpiles, and from the occasional problem animal would reverse black market trends by meeting demand sustainably through systematized channels and would subsequently eliminate availability and drive down need by using surcharges.

This, in turn, might minimize the intensity of poaching while stabilizing and ultimately recovering dwindling elephant and rhino populations.


Photograph by Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative
Photograph by Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative


Pro-trade rationale emphasizes the high rate of illegal poaching as a direct result of well meant, but impractically flawed, bans on products that have been valued for centuries and show no signs of being less desired anytime soon.

However, the cases for pro-trade remains theoretical, and anti-traders have expressed reasonable fears that a legal market would only bolster the illegal one.

Anti-trade Motivations

Anti-traders believe that supply sources for ivory and horn are so erratic that corruption springing up from within a regulated system would be inevitable, thereby superseding any attempts to effectively control it.

And though some may agree that while the collection of tusks and horns from animals that have died naturally is not tantamount to killing them indiscriminately, they stand firm on the belief that introducing legalized trade is a band-aid remedy that may only exacerbate an already high demand.

They likewise disregard comparisons to other market-regulated substances. Even a regulatory regime on illicit drugs wouldn’t necessarily stop those who seek to obtain and abuse them at more competitive prices. On top of that, scientists have dispelled false assertions of health benefits derived fromrhino horn.

But perhaps the most important argument for anti-trade champions is the idea that trade an animal products is anathema to wildlife sentience. It’s an issue that cannot be ignored, despite being criticized by some as emotional hyperbole.

One only need witness an elephant grieving over the death of one of its own, or black rhinoceros herds gathering to socialize under cover of darkness in the Kalahari, to understand that animals, like humans, are endowed with self-awareness, emotional expression, and the ability to retain memories.


Photograph by Billy Dodson, courtesy of AWF
Photograph by Billy Dodson, courtesy of AWF


Insofar as emotion can seem counterintuitive to logic in many cases, one cannot deny the importance in its relationship to the value of life on Earth and how that plays out in the human-animal condition. It is this philosophy that stands as a cornerstone against wildlife commerce. Anti-traders see only a gloomy continuation of the status quo should horn and tusk commerce be legitimized.

There are many more arguments full of facts, figures, and statistics, which have long been debated and will continue to be for as long as elephants, rhinos, and all other African wildlife remain on the planet.

But unfortunately, parleys have yet to produce any compromise that might result in more positive outcomes. And while there appears no solid middle ground, elephants and rhinoceros continue being poached at unprecedented rates.

The Missing Piece

Incidentally, there’s one piece of the puzzle that largely seems to be missing from discourses over the trade impasse, which is inherently key to conservation success: the African people.

Whether they’re indigenous or non-native, pastoral or agricultural, Africa’s people will ultimately decide the fate of their natural surroundings. Without their full support, wildlife is doomed to extinction.

Sadly, there have been many environmental endeavors that have not always taken into account the input of those who live alongside wildlife or adjacent to protected areas. It was renowned conservationist, and former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service David Western who is reported saying, “The day you’re compassionate to wildlife and not to people, you’ve lost the battle.”

Having been victims of colonialism for so long, it comes as no surprise that many African people are resistant to foreign impositions. They therefore must be more involved in the process, especially on the local level, where the effects of conservation—positive or negative—are felt the most. They’re pivotal to the continuation of an Africa rich in wildlife and other natural resources.

Ultimately, there will never be one fool-proof method for the continued protection of elephants and rhinos—considering the irresolute nature of the African continent and the world at large.

But despite all complications, it’s the fervor to save them that must unite conservationists with differing perspectives. The time has come to reengage in civil dialogue with one another about how best to combat the crisis. We must think outside the box, developing methods that consolidate the fight against poaching rather than grasping at what will not work on its own.

While disagreements over methodology may always be par for the course, it’s essential to accept the hard truth that most dilemmas typically require multifaceted solutions and the willingness to occasionally compromise for the greater good of the cause.

Anti-traders must acknowledge that moral bans and a desire to save individual animals may be fostering unintended negative consequences on entire species.

Pro-trade advocates need to admit that lifting trade bans may yield their own unanticipated ramifications.

And friction, while uncomfortable, should inspire both sides to reach across the aisle and see the potential for workable answers, even if it doesn’t necessarily meet their criterion.

Until that happens, the political posturing and ideological entrenchment from rival forces pushing hard against one another will only continue the stalemate, with no real results achieved—and the fate of Africa’s remaining elephants and rhinos irrevocably sealed.

Michael Schwartz is a journalist and African wildlife conservation researcher. With field experience around the continent since 2005, his passion for Africa’s wildlife is matched by his compassion for the people who live there. A significant portion of his field work is carried out in Uganda, where he studies lion and elephant conservation. You can visit his website at

  • Toby Hoffman

    Only solution is imprison all people who possess ivory – no exceptions. Any “legal” scheme will never work as it gives an out – an escape hatch from imprisonment – even for illegal ivory.

  • Ronald Orenstein

    Though I appreciate the author’s desire for compromise on this contentious issue, it is unfortunate that his rationale for compromise is based on a complete misunderstanding of the anti-trade position as it is held by the majority of elephant and rhinoceros range states and most conservation organizations. This position is not held on the philosophical grounds that rhinos and elephants are sentient and therefore should not be hunted or traded (though certainly there are many people who feel this way). Instead, it is based on a practical analysis, taking historical precedent into account, of the risks to the species that legalized trade would pose and on the unlikelihood that legal trade would provide the conservation benefits proposed for it. The author correctly notes that legal trade destabilizes control efforts against illegal trade, and perpetuates demand. As efforts to reduce demand are probably key to the survival chances of these animals (and the author obviously misunderstands the education programmes under way in this area, which are aimed at end-market consumers, not poor Africans), anything that makes these efforts less likely to succeed is a bad idea. Legal trade is at the top of that list (bearing in mind that the one major consumer country that allows large-scale legal trade in ivory, China, has also been identified as the largest customer for illegal ivory).

    The author also ignores the practical difficulties in the way of legal trade in rhino horn. Given the realities of international views on this issue as expressed by other governments (not just NGOs), it is highly unlikely that a proposal to CITES will succeed, and if it does it will probably take some five years or more to approve and implement. At 1000+ rhinos poached per year, we can’t wait that long to save rhinos – not to mention that no country, not even China or Vietnam, has come forward as a potential customer for horn even if it were to be legalized.

    Compromise is a fine thing, and dialogue is important – but if it leads to support for a bad and dangerous idea it is not necessarily a good approach (as we see in the endless climate change negotiations). We need tough, immediate action using techniques already proven to work: strong enforcement, tough penalties, anti-corruption initiatives, and strong demand reduction campaigns in consumer countries, coupled with really meaningful efforts to improve the lives of the poor people most affected by poaching activities (PS: the chief beneficiaries of a legal trade in rhino horn are in any case not likely to be the poor, but the wealthy private game-ranch operators in South Africa who are lobbying hardest for its acceptance).

  • Nanette Carter works with several villages and communities regarding developing CBNRM programs. We here all the time that the “people” often feel pressured between the Westerners/European/Chinese influences and their governments. If they stand up against these influences they often end up in jail to which they can ill afford the fees to be released.
    If we could terminate the ivory/horn demands in China an other parts of the world I’m confident the African people would figure it out and make their own decisions. They like tourism and the revenue that brings in. While Africa is a beautiful country without their wildlife I doubt many would continue to travel there…
    Unfortunately, fighting the good fight to save Africa’s wildlife we also fight worldwide, generationally handed down rituals and beliefs – culture plays a huge role and there are many cultures to address.

  • Carol Tobian

    This is an EXCELLENT article! I very much appreciate the insight provided here and thoughtful response the ‘sustainability’ view. While in my heart I am DEEPLY anti-trade, there is a reality we face: black market. If I could personally violently shake some sense into every single person who believes animal parts are ‘trinkets,’ I would make it my life mission. However, that is stupid-speak. Thank you for insight here as it may have a glimmer of hope in contributing to a sensible debate.

  • Benjamin Kinberg

    Excellent analysis. You have framed the debate in a fair and well-reasoned way. Both pro-trade and anti-trade proponents simply need to heed the basic tenets of this essay in order to push any sort of meaningful conservation discussion forward and achieve the ends which you’ve pointed out are ones that are “dual sincere.”

  • Scott G Roberts

    THANK YOU MICHAEL! Great break down of ideas ~ SR

  • Moses Konde

    After having read all this conservation writing from Michael, i really appreciate you for such wonderful educative article, and it is true African wildlife species still suffers problems from the ignorant African hunters looking for pet cash of the day. Michael, together we unite this problem can be curbed down but a lot has to be done to change the minds of Africans. To me if two issues which seems to be the major factors forcing Africans to kill these animals (Ignorance and Poverty) when are solved down these animals will leave and that is why i preach my conservation awareness following “Dr. Jane Goodall” slogan “Only if we understand can we care, only if we care will we help, only if we help can they be saved.”

  • Rael Loon

    A good balanced perspective. In order to achieve a ‘solid middle ground between warring conservationists’, policy makers need to create the institutional environment whereby rhinos are worth more alive than they are dead. In order to do so the existence value of rhinos needs to be higher than their commodity value alone. With prices for such high value wildlife rising, interventions need to go beyond regulation. As Schwartz mentions the ‘missing key’ could (should) be creating incentives for African people to protect wildlife. However the realities on the ground with regards to limited governance, transparency and accountability makes this difficult in practice particularly in the more remote areas. Ecotourism remains one of the key drivers which can facilitate tangible conservation objectives especially through employment. In the medium term, the argument for sustainable utilization needs to be advanced as a hall-mark for conservation success (especially in South Africa). If this is considered an unpalatable argument by donor countries, then the alternative (‘Plan B’) would be to ‘match’ these potential values through sustainable revenue streams which can be re-invested into the conservation/ anti-poaching efforts on the ground. Transparency and accountability would be essential here, but leading NGOs like IUCN, WWF and the International Rhino Foundation have many of the mechanisms for implementation already in place. Finally, in the long-term, demand reduction strategies in consumer Asian countries need to be continued. Only the most callous of human beings can watch footage of a rhino bleeding to death with its nose hacked off and still purport to use rhino horn.

  • Liana Venter

    Thank you Michael for a great article.
    Thank you for being open minded to both sides and stating the pro’s and cons of both options.

    As a South African citizen I grew up knowing a lot of what was going on in nature. I grew up on a farm/ranch and have a thorough understanding of nature and conservation. I myself LOVE nature in all it’s forms and I hate what is happening especially to Rhinos.

    Firstly I would like to say this – I grew up in a family of hunters and I myself enjoy hunting. I say this because I would just absolutely LOVE for people to realize that there is a HUGE difference between hunting and simply killing.
    Hunting in an ethical way goes hand-in-hand with conservation. I enjoy hunting and I would absolutely HATE if EVER ANY animal specie should just disappear from this earth!!!

    Secondly I would like to state that I am in favor of the Pro-trade option.
    PS: I am NOT wealthy and I will most definitely not gain from this. But at least one day my children and grandchildren might grow up knowing what Rhinos are and not only seeing them on pictures.
    Here’s my reasons:

    1.) The poaching of animals such as Rhinos and Elephants has NOT been going on for the past 5 or 10 years. It has been going on for much longer than that!!! It should have been an issue since way back, but it only became a issue since suddenly people have taken notice that some of these precious species are close to extinction.
    Because this issue has been going on for so many years, a stockpile has been built up – Rhino horns and Elephant tusks are kept in “safes” by government and are put away in safe places, because selling it is illegal, but simply throwing it away or burning it as they used to do in the old days is just stupid.
    If ALL the stockpiles and everything that has been gathered for so many years were to be put on the market and legally sold, what do you think would happen?
    Here’s what I think – you will flood the market!! Suddenly something that was so scarce would be easily accessible.
    So how can this be a good thing???
    I often go to game auctions in South Africa.
    To give you an idea – up until about 5 years ago Rhinos sold for at least R250 000 per animal or more. These days you can buy one for about R95 000.
    How is this relevant???
    The people who breeds with game, helping game populations grow and NOT shrink, helping game and NOT destroying them – these people are NOT interested in buying Rhinos anymore!! And why is this? Because owning a Rhino has become a dangerous hobby!!
    I worked for a lady who used to own 11 Rhinos and she loved them as if they were her children! After discovering 2 of her Rhinos dead in the bush, slaughtered in the cruelest of ways, she decided to sell the rest of them. Having Rhinos on your property has become so risky that she did not want to take any chances. Not long after that incident, a friend of her’s who had a Rhino on his property, was brutally attacked and one of his workers killed by poachers.
    Here’s what I am trying to say – If selling became legal, then poaching will scale down, and more people will be interested in breeding with Rhinos again because it is then less dangerous as well as economic to do so.

    2.) What has keeping it illegal helped so far???
    In 2014 alone more than 1000 Rhinos was poached!! And this only in South Africa!!!!! Even more shocking than that is that more than 600 of these were killed in the Kruger National Park – a park that has a huge income and many donations to help them keep Rhinos safe. They have plenty of guards and rangers to protect these animals but still it doesn’t work!
    It is illegal to poach a Rhino, but when someone is caught doing it, they go to jail for a few days and then get out on bail.?! How is that helping anything?? Just because the guy who is doing the killing is not the one planning it, does that mean he can simply walk away from it? And how is it that even some of the masterminds behind the poaching is not locked up? It’s because everyone is so obsessed with money! Those guys have millions in the bank. They can just buy their way out of anything and everything….as the saying goes – everything has a price.
    So in my opinion – keeping it illegal has gotten us nowhere so far, and I can NOT see that it will anytime soon!

    3.) So everyone is saying that “the African people” should stand together. How about if the “other nations” who like to buy all these horns and tusks, were to be educated or given another way of ‘accomplishing’ what they APPARENTLY do by using these products.?
    Why should the argument be that if it is to be made legal, the poor African nation should benefit from it?
    That should NOT be the inspiration!!! Poverty is everywhere and poor people are everywhere, and I do feel sorry for them and I do wish to help them! But why should Rhino and Elephant have ANYTHING what so ever to do with that?
    I think that is quite idiotic to argue like that.

    If you have ever been in the position where you walk up to a dead rhino, poached and killed in the cruelest of ways, then you would be just as desperate as I am to do something VERY drastic about the situation!!

    So if you say that making it legal is only shifting the problem, or that it will cause more of a problem, or that it would make it worse – please tell me how you could know that fro sure? It has been illegal for longer than I have lived and what has that changed?
    Don’t you think that even the slightest of chances of change by making the trade legal is worth the try???

    My conclusion:
    Make it legal and there is a very good chance that the following would happen:
    1.) You will flood the market!
    2.) Game farmers will start breeding with rhinos intensively.
    3.) Poaching will scale down and possibly even come to a complete halt.

    I think it’s worth the try!!!

  • Inge Buchanan

    What a great article.
    I think some of the work being done by Ol Pejeta Conservancy is helping to provide the missing piece:

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