It wasn't too long ago that ivory was taboo. After the horrific slaughter of the 1980s, where 700,000 to 1 million elephants were killed for their tusks, a 1989 ban came down hard on the luxury item known as "white gold." Member countries of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to ban its trade entirely, and like all their trade agreements, threatened stiff consequences should anyone flaunt the rule.
The ban worked because it made any African ivory on the market immediately identifiable as poached and illegal. According to Time magazine, a stigma quickly rose around the tusks. Demand fell and the elephants began to come back.
But the power of that taboo slipped in 1997, when CITES allowed for the first of several one-time exemptions — single sales for countries to sell off their stockpiles of ivory. CITES hoped this would help meet demand, lowering the prices poachers could get for their goods. But with legal ivory back on the market, it became harder to tell the difference between the legal, stockpiled store and the poached goods that were still for sale.
Now, with an again insatiable demand for ivory in Asia — and crime syndicates and poachers to support it — Tanzania and Zambia are petitioning CITES to "downlist" elephants' conservation status, according to Science magazine. The two countries are interested in having a permanent channel through which to sell their stockpiled ivory — ivory they say is seized from poachers or collected from already-dead elephants. The thing is, Tanzania and Zambia also happen be the center for the illegal trade in ivory. But while Kenya and six other African nations plan to counter with a proposed 20-year ban on ivory sales, the prospect of upholding the elephants' conservation status looks bleak. According to the Times, CITES delegates have already rejected plans to protect the bluefin tuna and polar bears at their meeting in Qatar, and the EU has announced its vote against Kenya's 20-year plan.
Thanks to Katie Lambert for suggesting this subject.
Image credit: An African elephant mother with her calf (James Warwick/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images)