Published in The Nation on Friday 24th April 2015
Written by Clement Manjaalera, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust


IMG_8800The decision to postpone the ivory burn earlier this month caused heated debate, with many commentators missing the point.  The internet was set alight with calls to cash in on the apparent ‘millions’ that Malawi could make from selling instead of burning its ivory but, quite simply, the ivory in question is worth absolutely nothing to Malawi. To be sold it would have to be laundered illegally and international law broken – and a legal sale is never going to happen.

Destroying the ivory stockpiles will put it out of economic use, carrying the message that elephants are not a commodity that should be harvested for their tusks.  A sale does the opposite, de-valuing wildlife in relation to its importance to tourism and thus the economy.  A sale would also break three international declarations signed by Malawi in the past year which commit to a hard line against the ivory trade, thus undermining international collaboration and conservation efforts.

As the Minister of Tourism pointed out in an interview at the weekend, ivory only holds value to criminals.  An illegal sale would be like taking a haul of confiscated cocaine and deciding not to destroy it but to sell it back into the black market.  However it is not the same as selling impounded vehicles since vehicles in themselves are not illegal and do not on any level represent the evils of either cocaine or ivory.  What’s more, talk of raising cash from a sale is circumventing international law and does not help Malawi’s reputation given the recent Cashgate scandal.

Some have argued for inaction, for storage until a later date when markets may once again become legal.  However CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) will never allow seized ivory to be sold.  Only a tiny fraction of Malawi’s stockpile is from natural deaths or problem animal control and even this would not be considered for a sale due to Malawi’s lack of data and a rapidly declining population.  Therefore there is no legal money to be made for investment into humanitarian or wildlife related causes.

In fact CITES is highly unlikely to entertain any other one-off legal sales for any countries, given that these acts have been held responsible for the unprecedented increase in poaching worldwide.   The international commercial trade in ivory was officially banned in 1989 by CITES and since then two ‘one-off’ sales were allowed.  Rather than flood the market and reduce demand, the sales only encouraged poachers and traffickers to increase their criminal activity, exploiting easily crossed lines between the illegal and legal markets, and bear in mind we are not talking subsistence poaching.  It is no secret that an estimated 90% of profits from the illegal ivory trade end up in the hands of organised criminal syndicates and terrorist groups.

Keeping ivory in storage represents a major security risk, as there are criminals and corrupt people who do not respect the law and will target the stockpiles for their own ends.  The cost of securing the stockpile against theft is a significant burden to the government, money which could instead be invested in anti-poaching and scout security. If all or some of the ivory is stolen or goes missing then Malawi’s reputation will be tarnished, as the amount of ivory has been independently audited and the world knows exactly what is held in those stockpiles down to the last kilogram.

The value is in our elephants and not their ivory, and knowing that the ivory trade will undoubtedly lead to the extinction of Africa’s most majestic species in the next ten years, surely we should want no part?  Elephants are worth 76 times to tourism versus the value of their ivory, and remember this value is only relevant on an illegal market only accessible to criminals. That doesn’t even touch on an elephant’s worth to biodiversity and ecosystems, and thus agriculture and human health – a discussion for another day.

This is no time for half measures.  Beyond the sensationalist million dollar headlines there is a wildlife crisis and we need to act now.  There are many in Malawi who are taking the fight against wildlife crime very seriously and the results are beginning to show.  In just one year, there have been stiffer sentences, better inter-agency cooperation and the reviewing of wildlife acts.  I personally applaud the Government’s continued commitment to reject the ivory trade and burn the ivory stockpiles.