Let me join the chorus in celebrating Matt Scully’s heartbreaking piece on elephant poaching in Africa. It’s one of those subjects I simply hate reading about because of the feelings of impotence and outrage it inspires in me. Scully is right about the misunderstanding about the demand vs. supply issue. He writes:
Of all people, it was a Chinese delegate to CITES who, on the way out the door in Bangkok, advised that everyone “focus less on the demand side of the equation and instead consider the anti-poaching capacity of countries which were losing their elephants.” He had a point, at least for the short term, in a year when another thirty or forty thousand elephants will die for their ivory. The great flaw in the libertarian’s demand-must-prevail argument is that, unlike illicit narcotics, ivory is finite in supply and limited in location. And if those ranges, broad and scattered as they are, can be forcefully defended, then demand will be killed off instead of the elephants. Demand for ivory might be a craze but it is not an implacable addiction. And commerce in the material depends on unique skills that pass away with the carvers, so that even a decade of earnest protection buys vital time. In that crucial period, for a fairly small price, private foundations, and all the more those with an environmental agenda, could accomplish more than CITES has in its four decades, saving people and elephants alike from a threat that brings ruin to all.
Ivory is not cocaine or heroin, which can always be produced in amounts equal to demand. Ivory “addiction” is entirely metaphorical. Narcotics create real biological yearnings indistinguishable, economically speaking, from physical need. Ivory is a fad and fashion. No one goes into ivory withdrawal. Nobody forgets to eat or bathe because of their insatiable need for one more hit of carved ivory or one more row of piano keys. The ridiculous “folk remedies” some Chinese put stock in are slightly different. Here, at least, there is a perceived need. But the simple fact is that if the Chinese think eating a tiger’s penis is superior to, say, viagra they’re fools and they need to be exposed as such. It would also help if they were arrested or fined beyond all reckoning.
Matt generously references a post of mine from last January about the need to crush poachers. Given the incredible amount of money wealthy people give to zoos and other worthy charities, I find it bizarre that a serious effort along these lines lacks sufficient resources. Moreover, preserving elephants — and rhinos and lions and tigers — is so transparently in the self-interest of the countries that have them, you’d think the vital need to crush poachers would be much further along. But it’s not. So, faster please.