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With the lucrative black-market trade in ivory pushing Africa’s elephants to the brink of extinction, it’s time for the world to intensify its anti-smuggling efforts, says Alnoor Amlani

This article was first published in the October International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

The irony in the title of Ebony and Ivory, Stevie Wonder’s song about race relations, is in the fact that black and white piano keys, made of ebony and ivory from Africa, ‘live together in perfect harmony’ but people cannot do the same.

In modern-day Africa ebony is abundant but ivory is most definitely not. The black-market price of illegal ivory (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ended the legitimate trade in 1989) has continued to rise. The US alone has seized six tons of illegal ivory since the ban came into force – it recently announced that it intended to destroy its stockpile to help discourage the trade.

The global price is being driven by an insatiable demand from China where the ivory is used not for piano keys but instead is carved into intricate trinkets and works of art and craft, or kept for investment value. Customs authorities officially intercepted 29,000kg of ivory smuggled in between 2009 and 2011.

Unlike rhino horn, which is sought by the Chinese for medicinal properties, in the case of ivory there is no justification beyond the appreciation of the physical beauty of the ivory itself.

Meanwhile Africa is losing an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 elephants a year – far more than the annual birth rate. If this is not stopped, the wild elephant will be extinct on the continent within a decade or less.

Paula Kahumbu, Kenya’s CITES coordinator and executive director of WildlifeDirect reports that in the past six months over 7.5 tonnes of ivory has been intercepted being smuggled out. Kenya has just revised its wildlife laws, increasing penalties and sentences as well as better equipping and intensifying efforts in capturing poachers.

Yet it isn’t enough. Elephants continue to be poached because the people living alongside the wildlife parks are poor and the price of ivory is too attractive.

The elephant, alongside the ape, dolphin and chimpanzee, is one of the most intelligent species on the planet. Scientists have often proved elephants’ intelligence in cooperation, learning and toolmaking, and their long-term memory is legendary. Elephants have often saved people in emergency situations and, more directly, they are man’s helpers in Asia, where they have been domesticated and put to work.

China’s ancient elephant populations died out 3,000 years ago. But in Africa the wild elephant is still a key part of the ecosystem. In the forests, savannah and mountain regions they remain a familiar – if already a much rarer – sight, providing comfort that at least here we have not destroyed the natural world completely.

How can the world stop the slaughter and prevent extinction? In some game reserves, revenue from tourism is being channelled more completely towards protecting the wildlife that it depends on. Africa earned $34bn last year from tourism, up from $6bn in 1990.

Improving wildlife management by using tourism revenues in this way offers some protection, but can it really compete with a black market driven by exorbitant, ever rising prices?

The only way to save the wild elephant is for the countries receiving ivory to stop buying it. China, for example, could use the power of its centralised government to demand that citizens return all the ivory they hold to Africa (starting with the 29,000kg in the customs stores), and enforce a ban on any further buying, as well as teaching its people that ivory is only for elephants. Otherwise, I fear, the wild African elephant may be lost forever.

Alnoor Amlani FCCA is an independent financial management consultant in East Africa who writes regularly on social and business issues

Last updated: 10 Oct 2013