Sustainable harvesting of ivory not possible, according to a new study

African elephant populations can’t meet demands of legalised ivory trade, a recent report argues.

Older elephants are targeted by ivory hunters because they have the largest tusks. © Johanness Gerhardus Swanepoel/iStock
Older elephants are targeted by ivory hunters because they have the largest tusks. © Johanness Gerhardus Swanepoel/iStock

Although the international ban on the trade of ivory was introduced in 1989, the hunting and killing of elephants for their tusks has persisted.

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As South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia prepare to debate next week that the ban on ivory trade should be lifted – as outlined in their joint proposal to CITES – a study has found that the consequences of legalising ivory trade would be dire, leading to African elephant populations plummeting.

The study – published on 15 September and carried out by David Lusseau of the University of Aberdeen and Phyllis Lee at the University of Stirling – aimed to find a way in which a healthy elephant population could be sustained in the onset of a legalised ivory trade.

Their findings were far from optimistic, and concluded that managing a sustainable quota of elephants to be harvested for ivory would not be possible.

In order to be sustainable, the pace of hunting should meet the pace of growing elephant populations.

However, the study argues that the population growth rate of African elephants is slow, and therefore cannot meet demands in ivory trade, making it impossible to sustain their numbers in the wake of legalised hunting.

As older elephants produce the largest tusks, older animals in the population will always be targeted by hunters, and are likely to be harvested first.

In turn, more, smaller elephants will need to be taken the following year to keep up with demand.

The paper concludes that if the ban on the ivory trade were to be lifted, the probability is that it would lead to the “rapid disappearance of African elephants.”

It suggests that attention should be shifted to consumer behaviour, as decreasing the demand for ivory will ultimately be the most reliable method of stemming the slaughter of elephants and sustaining their population.

The debate on legalising ivory trade will be discussed from 24 September to 5 October at a major CITES conservation meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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