Elephants, Mammoths, and Terror: The Ivory Trade Crisis
Terror organizations are slaughtering elephants at alarming rates to sell the ivory in Asia and buy weapons. What to do?
Mammoths and elephants possess an expensive commodity high in demand: ivory. Several articles point out the crisis this has created when politics and money get involved. It’s a story of human greed and evil, but also an intriguing mystery: how did millions of mammoths die?
Fox News interviewed the producer of a disturbing documentary about elephant poaching. 33,000 elephants a year are being slaughtered for their ivory by poachers, he says, some of them members of the most violent terror gangs in Africa. The poachers sell the ivory to the Chinese, and use the money to buy weapons for their terror campaigns. It’s a scenario hatched in hell. What to do?
Douglas MacMillan has a counter-intuitive idea. A Professor of Conservation and Applied Resource Economics at University of Kent, MacMillan argues on The Conversation that “banning the mammoth ivory trade would be a huge mistake.” His reasons touch on issues of market economics, government pressure, and human nature.
There is widely held belief that the only way we can protect globally endangered species that are being poached for the international wildlife trade is to completely ban the trade. This is a dangerous misconception and will speed up extinction rather than prevent it.
Adrian Lister, a mammoth expert from University College London, recently suggested that mammoths should be listed under the convention on international trade in endangered species to keep their ivory from being laundered into an illegal trade in tusks. He argued that the mammoth trade is encouraging the poaching of elephants by keeping up the demand for ivory.
This is madness.
It’s clear that government bans are not working. Like he says, it just encourages a black market. MacMillan’s article also touches on an amazing phenomenon: the frozen mammoths of the Arctic.
Mammoths and mammoth ivory is not rare – it is estimated that there are 10 million mammoths that remain incarcerated within the permafrost of the Arctic tundra. And in any case a ban on mammoth ivory would not stop the trade, it would simply drive it underground and attract the attention of organised crime groups. For example, in my own research I found that prices for illegally caught whale meat rose very quickly when enforcement efforts intensified and this in turn led to the trade being controlled by dedicated “professional” criminals.
Sound like Prohibition? Sound like Mexican drug cartels? When will government leaders learn? And where is the U.N.? Clearly, there are not enough police agents to locate every poacher and intercept them all in time to save the elephants. It’s dangerous work, for one thing, and rampant corruption gives the poachers a pass. MacMillan believes that controlled access to mammoths will save more elephants and also stimulate research on the great extinct beasts of the ice age.
Bold moves are old moves, he argues: what’s needed is a return to time-honored market economics. Regulated trade, ranching, and and wildlife farming are alternatives that will drive down demand for illegal hunting and “certainly cause prices to fall and pressure on wild populations to reduce.”
Obviously you cannot farm extinct animals. But even with non-renewable resources, like coal and oil, if the supply is high, the price falls. Basic economics shows that when the supply dwindles, the price rises, driving demand for alternatives.
MacMillan leaves the origin of the mammoths hanging. That subject is taken up by Science Daily, “Mammoth remains, as far as the eye can see: Widest distribution of mammoths during the last Ice Age.”
Ice Age paleontologist Prof. Dr. Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke of the Senckenberg Research Station for Quaternary Paleontology in Weimar recorded the maximum geographic distribution of the woolly mammoth during the last Ice Age and published the most accurate global map in this regard. The ice-age pachyderms populated a total area of 33,301,000 square kilometers and may thus be called the most successful large mammals of this era. The study, recently published online in the scientific journal Quaternary International, determined that the distribution was limited by a number of climate-driven as well as climate-independent factors.
While Dr. Kahlke’s map is commendable, it doesn’t account for the death of millions of these large mammals in a short time. It also doesn’t mention the bizarre circumstances of their demise, such as dying in a standing position with broken legs and food still in their mouths. Creationists have looked to the frozen mammoth evidence to support various theories of the Flood and post-Flood ice age. Those interested can compare the models of Dr. Walt Brown and Michael Oard, two who have given the matter the most detailed attention but arrived at very different scenarios. Regardless of one’s favored model, the fact that millions of these huge mammals exist in permafrost across the Arctic, some with hair, blood and soft tissue intact, should astonish anyone who reads about it.
The one theory that doesn’t make any sense is that mammoths just peacefully lived and died over millions of years, lying down and getting covered in permafrost. Or, that they died from global warming (Live Science). Right. Standing up, with food in their mouths, global warming knocked them flat and broke their bones. The evidence of millions of frozen mammoths challenges uniformitarianism. Something dramatic happened that never happened before or since.
How to save elephants? Let entrepreneurs raise them for profit. They will have a vested interest in protecting them and conserving them. It’s like Christmas tree farming; it drove down the price, and thereby the demand for individuals to cut down trees in the forest indiscriminately. The tree farmer’s livelihood depends on sustainability and customer satisfaction. MacMillan talks about how alligators were spared from poaching when entrepreneurs were allowed to raise them for sale. It can work for elephants. Let entrepreneurs recover mammoth tusks, but not indiscriminately; give them an affordable license, like they do for fishermen, or let them own a piece of land containing mammoths, like people who own ranches containing dinosaur bones; they can use the land to make money, and sell tusks they find on the property for extra money. Scientists should have to pay a fair market price.
The “Tragedy of the Commons” occurs when nobody takes responsibility for a resource. Private property, by contrast, turns human greed into a force for good. To stay in business, the property owner or businessman has to please the customer. An elephant rancher would have a vested interest in growing the finest animals with the best tusks, just like cattle ranchers. Another marketable approach is to grow elephants for wildlife safaris, or to sell to zoos. Another alternative is for biomimetics researchers to discover a way to grow synthetic ivory that is indistinguishable from elephant or mammoth ivory. The expansion of constitutional republican government, with the rule of law for all, punishing corruption, is also essential for this to work.
Another tragedy is occurring right now with Monarch butterflies. Illegal deforestation of the Monarch’s mountainous habitat in Mexico has more than tripled, PhysOrg reports. Again, the government thinks that banning deforestation is the answer. It isn’t. It’s the tragedy of the commons again. In a sense, you can’t blame desperately poor people who just want to support their families. The incentives must be changed, by offering them private property they can call their own and protect from trespassers. It will incentivize them to take care of it. They will be motivated to stop the poachers. A stable government with rule of law is required so that they can get justice when their rights are violated.
Another alternative is to allow limited private ownership of butterfly habitats if they profit from the success of the butterflies. Market economics understands human nature. It harnesses the self-interest of people for good. Imposing it by force often fails. People need to eat; they will grab what they can get unless they find a better way. Why make it so difficult for them to make a living honestly?
The principles are time-proven, even if this explanation is simplified. One thing is clear: banning the trade of ivory is not working. It is hastening the extinction of these magnificent large mammals most people love and respect. Needless to say, raising children with a worldview that values nature and honors altruism goes a long way toward preventing the worst of human nature, as seen in the present crisis. Poaching, corruption, and terrorism are unlikely to be fruits of a mission church filled with children singing “How Great Thou Art.”