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Why S'pore's proposed ivory ban may not solve problem of illegal trade

The Singapore government, through the Agri-Veterinary Authority (AVA), recently announced a public consultation on a proposed ban on ivory and ivory products in Singapore. This is in relation to a bigger commitment by Singapore to tackle illegal elephant ivory trade and support elephant conservation.

Why S'pore's proposed ivory ban may not solve problem of illegal trade

Thai officials hold confiscated elephant tusks before destroying the ivory, a move the author says is ineffective since it sends out a message to the market that the resource is increasingly scarce and thus worthy of speculative investment.

The Singapore government, through the Agri-Veterinary Authority, recently announced a public consultation on a proposed ban on ivory and ivory products in Singapore. This is in relation to a bigger commitment by Singapore to tackle illegal elephant ivory trade and support elephant conservation.

It is in the spirit of constructive feedback that I argue against such a proposed ban, on the basis that it is an ineffective mechanism which may lead to unintended consequences.

A ban on ivory has been tried by other governments before, with limited success. Reporting by the BBC shows that despite an international ban on ivory trade, elephant poaching has persisted.

This is further confirmed by the World Wildlife Fund that today, “despite a ban on the international trade in ivory, African elephants are still being poached in large numbers. Tens of thousands of elephants are being killed every year for their ivory tusks”.

This limited success is unsurprising once we study the role of economic incentives.

What a ban on ivory would do is to reduce the supply on the market without necessarily changing the underlying demand for it, therefore raising perceptions of scarcity and driving up prices.

When prices are high, poachers, especially in poor countries, remain highly incentivised to poach and this further fuels black market sales.

This effect may be even more pronounced in certain cultures where possessing rare items such as ivory tusks are seen as prestigious.

The overall result may be to increase rewards to poachers and intensify poaching activity.

Additionally, as economist Ted Bergstrom argued in a paper “On the Economics of Crime and Confiscation”, destroying confiscated stockpiles of goods is ineffective, since it sends out a message to the market that the resource is increasingly scarce and thus worthy of speculative investment.

He recommends instead selling these stockpiles back to the market to restrain prices.

Rather than the blunt tool of simply banning ivory, governments in countries with substantial wildlife populations should consider the use of market-based mechanisms for conservation.

These include clearly defining and enforcing property rights and legal trade, which help protect endangered species by giving local communities and incentive to invest in their long term conservation.

Property rights and legal trade help protect imperiled species like elephants and rhinos by giving local communities an incentive to invest in their conservation. When those communities profit from wildlife tourism, as they do in South Africa and Namibia, they tend to view the animals as assets rather than liabilities.

Consequently, they have a reason to invest in habitat improvements and protect the animals from poaching.

This approach was in fact used by South Africa in the late 20th century in an effort to save the endangered Southern white rhinoceros.

According to research done by the Property Environment and Research Center, a market-based environmentalist NGO, African rhinos were saved from extinction “owing to a change in policy allowing private ownership of wildlife”.

Additionally, “property rights over rhinos changed the incentives of private ranchers by encouraging breeding.

This approach comes from a more general school of thought titled “free market environmentalism”, best exemplified by the book written by Terry Anderson and Donald Leal of the same name.

Free market environmentalists have proposed multiple ways whereby markets promote conservation and effective environmental management, by harnessing local knowledge and entrepreneurial incentives.

Where the Singapore government is concerned, a more sustainable approach that can contribute to international conservation efforts would be to step up educational initiatives to change the underlying consumer preferences and thus reduce demand for ivory.

Such attempts at environmental education has in fact been done by the National Environment Agency through a slew of public-private collaborations, and should continue to be the centerpiece of conservation policy.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Bryan Cheang is the Director of the Adam Smith Center, a pro-competition, non-profit organisation in Singapore. He has no links with any business or organisation involved in the ivory trade.

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