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Decisions on Elephants and Ivory Sales Should Heed Science Over Politics, Experts Say in Science

Tanzania and Zambia are petitioning to downgrade the conservation status of elephants and allow the sale of tons of stockpiled ivory, but researchers are warning that such a ruling could endanger the mammoth mammals by encouraging more illegal poaching.


African elephant cow and calf, Amboseli National Park, Kenya | © Art Wolfe/

The two petitioning nations have spotty track records when it comes to combating poaching and protecting their elephant populations, and experts say that previous “one time only” ivory sales have led to spikes in illegal poaching. But as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, prepares to convene in Qatar this weekend, representatives of member states are gearing up for a showdown.


This week in Science, Samuel Wasser from the University of Washington in Seattle and 26 fellow scientists from around the world call on CITES to place hard science before the politics of international trade. They discuss the multi-billion dollar trade of illegal wildlife, and investigate whether or not Tanzania’s and Zambia’s petition could lead to a resurgence of elephant poaching across the African continent.

The scientists note that Tanzania and Zambia have been major sources of illegal ivory in the past and that the two nations have failed to submit all the information necessary for CITES to make a true scientific assessment of the ivory trade and illegal poaching. Likewise, related investigations led by groups like Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), a program operating under CITES, have failed to provide evidence that the countries are responsibly controlling poaching and the illegal trade of ivory.

DNA forensics work, led by the scientists, has shown that much of the illegal ivory seized in Africa over the past decade has originated from Tanzania and Zambia.

Furthermore, Wasser and his colleagues argue that a ban on ivory trade won’t be effective if it allows “one-off” sales like the one Tanzania and Zambia are seeking. They point to evidence of increased elephant poaching following such one-off sales in the past, and warn that they only create a higher demand for ivory on the black-market.

“The one-off sale was a signal to the market and to poachers that the trade was opening up again,” says Joyce Poole, a co-author of the Science paper. “… In the last decade we have seen just what this has meant for elephant populations.”

The group of scientists insists that CITES should base their decisions about the legal trade of vulnerable species on a number of scientific factors, such as the species’ role in the ecosystem, the petitioning country’s record in combating illegal trade, and the controls in place that can be monitored and verified. Wasser and colleagues also suggest that CITES adopt a peer-review system that incorporates more input from the global scientific community—and that their data is thoroughly reviewed and analyzed before any international trade decisions are made.

“Many endangered species being traded are what we call keystone species,” Wasser wrote in an email interview. “Those are species whose decline or absence can cause a cascade of negative impacts on the environment because many species have co-evolved dependences on their presence in the ecosystem… The consequences of their loss go far beyond economics. There is now a large body of excellent scientific methods available that need to be incorporated into CITES trade decisions.

“This work needs to be conducted by experienced, independent experts that do not have a vested interest in the outcome,” Wasser continued. “There also needs to be more opportunity for the excellent scientists throughout the world to critique these results before critical decisions are made.”

According to these authors, the current scale of illegal ivory trade in Africa proves that most of the continent lacks adequate controls to protect their elephants—and that introducing the stockpiled ivory into such an uncertain marketplace could encourage more poaching and create conflict between people working for effective elephant conservation.

Moreover, the profits from a potential ivory sale would represent only a small fraction of the revenues generated from tourism in the two African nations—and the tourism, which is primarily driven by their elephant populations, would certainly suffer if those elephants disappeared.

[See a separate news release from the University of Washington.]