ICE Case Studies



CASE NAME: Ivory Poaching
Draft Author: N. Lowery, December 1997

Revisiting the Ban on African Elephant Ivory

I. Identification

1. Abstract

The African elephant (loxodonta africana) is not only the earth's largest land mammal, is is also one of the world's most objectified creatures.  In the 1970s, the global demand for ivory threatened to make the elephant extinct. Poachers, with access to automatic weapons derived from civil wars and international arms sales, were killing herds of elephants faster than ever before. From 1970 to 1985, the total elephant population of Africa decreased by half. At a 1989, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora) meeting, 115 countries decided to ban the international trade of ivory in the hopes of restoring elephant populations to healthy levels. The years 1996 and 1997 witnessed an effort of southern African countries to lift, at least partially, this ban. Elephant populations in Africa as a whole are increasing, in part, thanks to the CITES ban and listing of elephants on the most endangered species list.  In Southern Africa, however, research indicates that elephant populations were never threatened, and in fact, the elephant populations are increasing beyond the capacity for feasible management and co-existence with rural populations. The goal of this paper is to examine what has occurred since the 1990 ban and discuss the implications of revisiting the issue. The vicious cycle of poverty and scarce resources in developing countries on the one hand, and the demand for ivory in international markets (particularly in the far East) on the other represents a recurring theme in this international debate.

2. Description

In 1989, CITES voted that the elephant was threatened with extinction, and listed the elephant on Appendix I as a "most endangered" species. In 1990, a ban was imposed on the international trade of ivory. As a symbolic gesture, Kenya destroyed its ivory stockpile valued at over $3 million. This ban, however, did not affect the domestic sale and use of ivory.

During the 1980s, poachers killed an estimated average of 200 African elephants a day for their tusks. Thus, the population plummeted to an estimated 625,000, down from 1.3 million in 1979. Since the ban went into effect, the population has fallen only slightly, to 580,000 (Time magazine, p.65).

Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia have wanted to lift ban and sell the guarded stockpiles of ivory. These ivory stockpiles (with an estimated value of $8 billion according to the World Wildlife Fund) have been accumulated from elephants who died of natural causes, were killed by game wardens to prevent attacks on humans, and confiscated illegal ivory. These three countries have healthy elephant populations and want to resume trade. Leaders and rural residents assert that elephants are competing with rural populations for access to scarce resources such as water. It has become a question of the carrying capacity of the land to support a growing population of elephants. The 12 countries of SADC (Southern African Development Community) support the plan to lift the CITES ban.

Since the 1980s, Kenya has been in the forefront of the effort to adopt means to promote elephant conservation. In the 1970s, 1900 elephants were killed in Kenya for their tusks. In the 1980s, 8300. Since the 1990 CITES ban, only 34 have been illegally killed. Kenya's elephant population is up to 26,800, from 19,000 in 1989 (KTN-TV, Kenya).

The United States was one of the most prominent proponents in the campaign to impose the ivory ban in 1990 and continues to oppose the lifting of the ban in 1997. U.S. wildlife experts argue that controls to determine the origins of ivory sources -- including registration systems and DNA fingerprinting - are seriously flawed, which means that it is not possible to determine, with any assurance that ivory being traded is from legal, or illegal sources. Most of the illegal important of ivory since 1990 has been into China, a non-member of CITES.

Achieving the 1990 ban was no easy task. Critics of the ban, while agreeing to the need to implement measures to halt the process of the extinction of the elephant, have criticized the means by which support for the ban was achieved. Many believe that western media sources were able to impose "western" values on the rest of the world. The voices of the rural African populations who are competing with elephants for scarce resources were not a part of the debate surrounding the issue of elephant conservation and ivory trade. Many Africans feel that western nations control decision-making, but do not have to deal with the consequences.

In 1989, countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia had elephant populations threatened with extinction. Elephant populations in certain nations in southern Africa, however, were not in danger. Botswana has about 60,000 elephants, about one-tenth of all elephants in Africa. In fact, these countries have programs that involve regulated hunting, mostly by foreigners who pay for hunting licenses, with local community decision-making and participation. Because of the monetary resources derived from limited hunting and community use, these countries are in a better position to afford better patrolling facilities and monitoring because of increased funds. In addition, the local residents are less inclined to kill elephants because they are receiving revenues from "sustainable" use of elephants. Some are even of the mentality that because they have such a high impact; they must "pay their own way". "Communities sell access to their elephants to hunting of photo safari operators, they are increasingly obtaining real benefits from elephants and in return are investing resources to defend their elephants against poachers." (Wildlife in the Marketplace, p.150).  In 1987, Zimbabwe introduced a program called CAMPFIRE (The Communal Area Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) which utilizes this concept.

Despite their divergent methods of elephant conservation, both Kenya and Zimbabwe have instituted a "shoot to kill policy" toward illegal poachers. These illegal poachers are a combination of rural peasants trying to raise funds and/or defending their property against the elephants and commercial poachers attempting to smuggle ivory for export.  For example, "one elephant can yield $3,600 for the middleman, at a time when the average worker's wage is no more than $1,000 a year" (Ivory Trade and Elephant Preservation, p.1).  A difference in revenue strategy and elephant population size, however, continues to prevent the two countries from agreeing to a common position. Kenya uses elephants and conservation to increase tourism and derives revenue from that strategy. Countries like Zimbabwe use the previously mentioned hunting safaris to obtain revenue.

While advocating ban, western countries have not come up with the resources to implement these measures. In Zimbabwe, ivory and skin from animals killed by game wardens are used by community members. Zambia's policy encourages game ranching, safari hunting and indigenous use of wildlife. Unlike the Asian elephant, African elephants have not been domesticated. At times, they represent a threat to the lives and livelihoods of nearby populations. On the flip side, however, their tusks are also much larger than those of Asian elephant, and therefore demand higher prices on the ivory market - which leads to increased poaching.

Recent incidents of illegal poaching and stockpiles in Tanzania and Kenya have encouraged the belief that illegal poaching will increase if the ivory ban is lifted or amended.

Over 1500 delegates prepared to attend the June 1997 CITES meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe -- representing the largest conservation meeting in the world.
CITES 1997: The Current Situation

A CITES meeting (with 136 parties) was held from June 9-20, 1997 in Harare, Zimbabwe.  Leaders from Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana joined forces to submit a proposal which would allow them to export ivory from existing stockpiles to Japan. Thirty percent of Africa's elephants live in these three countries (Elizabeth Owen, p.1).  With broad support from African countries in addition to the CITES Secretariat and the World Wildlife Fund, the measure was passed on June 19, 1997.  It was agreed that Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana could transfer their elephant populations from CITES Appendix I (most endangered species list) to Appendix II.  According to the resolution, if certain conditions are met, these countries can resume restricted ivory trade with Japan in March 1999.  Those conditions include: enforcing strict measures to ensure that illegal poaching does not escalate in other parts of Africa; the maintenance of an international reporting and monitoring system for poaching and legal and illegal trade (the role of the World Wildlife Fund will be essential here); and the identification of trade control and management deficiencies by the CITES Expert Panel (World Wildlife Fund, Conditions of Trade, p.1).

If enough evidence mounts to prove that such activities have increased, the elephants will be immediately transferred back to the most endangered species list.  Another facet of the resolution is that countries must work to ensure that mechanisms are put into place which would allow customs officials to ensure that traded ivory is coming from legal sources.  An estimated 60 tons of ivory will be involved in this trade (half of which is from Zimbabwe).  Leaders from Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana have promised to used the proceeds from these ivory sales for social and rural development programs as well as elephant conservation programs.

3. Location:

Geographic Domain:    Africa

Geographic Site:          Central, East, and Southern Africa

Geographic Impact:     Zimbabwe

II. Conflict and Environment Dimensions


4. Type and Level of Conflict: CIVIL and LOW
The level of conflict revolves around the issue of access to resources.  According to officials in Zimbabwe, a rapidly increasing elephant population is encroaching on the livelihoods of rural populations.  Elephants are competing with humans for scarce resources such as food, water, and land.  Instead of rural dwellers illegally culling elephants for meat or in desperation to save crops, Zimbabwe's wildlife management institution has organized a system by which rural residents can receive economic benefits for community development in exchange for sharing their habitat with these large mammals.

Other conflicts regarding ivory poaching include the events which led to the introduction of the 1989 international ivory trade ban.  Some developing nations with significant "exotic" wildlife populations felt that the will of rich, industrialized countries was being imposed upon them.  Statistics used by various governments and organizations to introduce the ban focussed on the dwindling elephant populations of countries like Kenya, without addressing how to factor in countries like Zimbabwe with thriving elephant populations.  For example, before the ban was implemented, the United States was the third largest consumer of ivory in the world.  To date, however, the United States has funded 55 projects in 18 African countries affecting over 225,000 elephants (United States Information Agency, p.3).  Some of these projects have included providing funds to African government agencies for anti-poaching assistance.

5. Type of Environmental Problem:
SPLL - Land Species Loss in addition to loss of farmland, etc.

6. Conflict Time Frame: PRESENT
From 1970 to 1989, Africa's elephant population was reduced by half. In 1989, CITES voted on Appendix I that the African elephant was a threatened species and banned ivory trade. In June, 1997, three Southern African countries -- Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa -- won the right to sell ivory from existing stockpiles to Japan.  In those countries, elephant populations are growing beyond land carrying capacity. In nations like Kenya and Zambia, however, elephant populations have not yet reached a comfortable level for managed poaching.

7. Environment - Conflict Link: DIRECT

                                                            {Demand for Ivory}
                                                   /         \
                                                  /           \
                  {Resource Management}   {Poverty}

III. Other Information Sources

8. Related Cases:

TED cases
3. Behrens, Gerd and Peter Hawthorne, " The Ivory Wars,." Time, June 16, 1997, pp.64-65.

4. "Big-Game Forensics - DNA fingerprinting may help discourage elephant poaching." Scientific American, December 1989, pp.27-28.

5.  Hill, Kevin, Conflicts Over Development and Environmental Values: The International Ivory Trade in Zimbabwe's Historical Context, Department of Political Science, Florida International University,

6.  Ivory Trade and Elephant Preservation, Sustainable Development/Economics Home page,

7.  Owen, Elizabeth, "Caution: Elephant Hazard", TIME Daily, June 20, 1997.

8.  Padgett, Bill, The African Elephant, Africa, and CITES: The Next Step, Global Legal Studies Journal II,

9. Randy Simmons and Urs Kreuter, "Herd Mentality - Banning Ivory Sales Is No Way to Save the Elephant." Policy Review, Fall 1989, pp.46-49.

10.  United States Information Agency, "Jones Outlines Need For Elephant Acts To Senate Committee", Africa News Online, November 4, 1997,

11.  Wetherell, Iden, "Zimbabwe Faces Embarrassment Over Illegal Ivory Sales", Weekly Mail & Guardian, December 6, 1996.

12.  World Wildlife Fund, WWF: CITES: Position on Elephants,

10. Relevant Web Sites:

World Wildlife Fund CITES Page

African Wildlife News - Wildlife Watch

The World Fact Book Home Page

CITES Home Page

CIA Publications


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December 1997