We have a CITES (Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species) meeting in Brux currently, and lobbyists have descended in droves, including the serried ranks of IFAW and WWF. So yesterday evening saw me dining in the Stanhope Hotel with the Namibian Environment Minister The Hon. N. Nandi-Ndaitwah, plus Namibian Ambassador Hanno Rumpf. The dinner was hosted by the US Safari Club International, the world’s largest Hunting and Conservation organisation, in conjunction with the European organisation FACE, of which our own Countryside Alliance is a member.
The touchstone question is, how do we save the elephant? Although very similar considerations apply to other species, not least the polar bear.
Across the parliament we see the hideous regiment of assorted socialists and lefties and greens, the bunny-huggers and the bleeding-hearts, who have a simple solution. Ban the ivory trade, and save the elephant. It appeals to the softer sentiments in all of us.
But socialism and sentiment are simplistic. They fail to account for incentives and human motivation. If you’re a dirt-poor third-world farmer, and you’ve spent six months growing the very modest crop that you hope will sustain your family until the next harvest, you’re not very sympathetic to an elephant that decides it has a prior claim on the crop. So the best strategy for that farmer is to shoot the elephant, and then sell the ivory on the black market. That’s a win-win deal for the farmer, but a death-knell for elephants.
A better way is to make the elephant a sustainable resource, and to give the farmer a real incentive to tolerate the elephants, who in some parts of Africa are encroaching on agricultural land quite severely (indeed in parts of Africa, elephant numbers have exceeded sustainability, but that’s another story). The plan is to allow a limited and controlled trade in ivory, but to use the proceeds to provide an insurance fund against which farmers can claim for elephant damage.
That removes the incentive for farmers to kill elephants to defend their crops, and potentially provides a source of revenue for local people which gives them an interest in sustaining the elephant population. That, at any rate, is the view of the Namibian and Tourism Minister, and I am convinced that she is sincerely concerned for the elephants, not merely looking for a quick profit by selling ivory.
I am sorry that some people who would normally support free-market solutions will viscerally shy away from the idea of selling ivory. But I fear they have to choose between a warm cuddly feeling on the one hand, and on the other the survival of the world’s most magnificent mammal.