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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...

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

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