Access to Information Request Reveals that South Africa holds 77 tonnes of Stockpiled Ivory: This is Untenable

South Africa doesn’t make its ivory stockpile numbers publicly known, so in May 2019 the EMS Foundation submitted a request under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), no. 2 of 2000. In response, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) revealed that the national ivory stockpile held by government bodies is nearly 77 tonnes. The majority of this ivory is held by South Africa National Parks (SANParks), with the remainder split between other government bodies that manage ivory. Of the total tonnage, 50 tonnes are comprised of ‘management’ ivory, which includes ivory removed from ‘culled’ elephants, natural mortality or ‘damage causing animals’. A further 15.8 tonnes are confiscations, while 10.9 tonnes fall into the ‘unknown’ category. Private ivory stockpiles also feature a remarkable 8.9 tonnes, 7.3 of which are ‘management’, while 1.6 are of ‘unknown’ origin.

A peculiar feature of the government-held stockpiles is that they contain 77 870 individual pieces of ivory. Divided by the total 77 tonnes, this equates to an average weight per piece of 0.988kg. This is difficult to understand, as the average tusk size of an African elephant is 23kg. The only explanation – other than the possibility that the numbers are wrong – is that there are an enormous number of partial tusks and lighter pieces of worked ivory in the stockpile. Given that most ivory is only carved once it reaches Asian markets, and that raw whole tusks are the most valuable exported form from Africa, it seems rather inconceivable that the average ivory piece in our stockpiles is less than a twentieth of the average whole tusk size. The private stockpile figure is more believable, with 1066 pieces – an average weight per piece of 8.3kg. A more detailed breakdown of the weight of each category of piece in government stockpiles is therefore clearly necessary.

At the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Geneva, pressure continued to mount against countries that still retain domestic ivory markets (mostly in southern Africa). Keeping domestic markets open alongside an international ivory trade ban undermines the efficacy of the ban. Given that demand for ivory in elephant range states is limited, it stands to reason that ivory bought in Africa is making its way across porous international borders.

For the same reason, large volumes of ivory held in range-state stockpiles is simply a sitting duck for theft and/or elite capture and laundering into the global illegal trade. Because this logic is compelling, the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) – Africa-led – aims to put all ivory stockpiles beyond commercial use. When Kenya burned a large portion of its ivory stockpile in 2016, free market ‘sustainable use’ proponents spurned pseudo-outrage that such value was being decimated. But the point is that elephants are ultimately worth more alive than dead, and ivory belongs to elephants, not to humans. And if the demand for ivory continues to decimate elephants, the already rapid destruction of the planet will simply speed up.

So which countries continue to peddle this view that ivory should be stockpiled and traded? Southern African nations, of course, who believe that it is their sovereign right (despite 76% of the continent’s elephant populations being shared across borders) to trade in ivory to fund conservation. But we still have no evidence that proceeds from the 2008 one-off sale actually went into conservation efforts at all. Despite the international consensus against domestic markets and trade in ivory, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe proposed amendments to Appendix II of CITES (which allows trade in endangered species under certain conditions). They wanted the current annotation – which strictly limits any trade in ivory – to Appendix II elephants changed to allow a full resumption of trade in registered raw ivory. Where would the ivory come from? Government-owned stocks.

South Africa – along with its southern African neighbours – continues to believe that its insistence on ‘sustainable use’ (the commodification of everything to a sellable asset) is the conservation answer. What it fails to realise is that trading in ivory, or even simply signalling that it desires to trade in ivory, undermines the efficacy of ivory demand reduction campaigns in Asia. It sends confusing signals to consumers.

Some economists have suggested that stockpiles be held as a threat mechanism – to flood the market if ivory prices climb too high as a result of speculation (which they argue is predominantly responsible for price rises). But this assumes that there will be an international market to receive this flooding. It also assumes that such flooding will be sufficiently large to result in reduced prices, leading to reduced poaching. In all likelihood, it will simply generate further demand. Supply-side interventions in high-demand, non-renewable ‘products’ are unlikely to produce any conservation benefit.

The world has moved on. It is high time that southern African countries stopped believing that they are exceptional. The elephant poaching tide is moving southward, as recent evidence from Botswana indicates. Governance questions have been raised in Namibia and Zimbabwe. These countries would be well advised to follow the EPI plan to put stockpiles beyond commercial use, shut their domestic markets and stop trying to reopen trade at every possible opportunity.

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