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Farming Ivory

Between watching other things last night my television briefly showed me Ross Kemp in Africa talking to a park ranger about elephant poachers armed with AK-47s. In voiceover he said that in the last 10 years 1000 park rangers have been killed. I looked it up. The Game Rangers Association of Africa are quoting the same figure. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature are saying the same thing, adding that the numbers are as reported by co-operating countries to the International Ranger Federation.

My first thought was to wonder how the nature conservationists think it is worth that much human life to protect some animals.

But as David Moore succinctly puts it in response to a Tim Worstall post about “waste [disposal] crime”, this is really another case of “government regulations creating massive incentives to bypass government regulations”.

Now there are objections. A one-off legal ivory sale intended to reduce the price of ivory apparently increased demand for poached ivory because researchers Prof Solomon Hsiang at the University of California Berkeley and Nitin Sekar at Princeton University, “think the legal sale reduced the stigma of ivory, boosting demand, and provided cover for the smuggling of illegal ivory, boosting supply”. This strikes me as a problem with one-off sales specifically, which are distinct from the long-term balance of supply and demand seen in a free market.

A couple of years ago Simon Jenkins argued in favour of ivory farming, and Will Travers responded with some impertinent arguments and some teenage emotional outpourings echoed by the commentariat that seem to amount to little more than “why can’t we all just get along?” Case in point:

I think Simon Jenkin’s proposal is wrong & morally offensive. Surely we need to banish forever the premise that animals on this planet are for here for the purpose of human beings’ exploitation & use – that their body parts are commodities to be farmed & harvested!

It does sound awfully easy when typed by a middle-class Guardian reader coddled in his air-conditioned public-sector office or a newly-vegetarian thirteen-year-old girl.

Here is how this middle-class libertarian blogger would solve it from his air-conditioned office: Abolish Cites, legalise the trade, and privatise the reservations so that the owners have an incentive to keep producing ivory, therefore preserving the species. There will still be poachers, but at least the profits could fund some proper security.

Addendums: Ivory is in the news very recently and I commented there; we do seem to talk about ivory a lot here; this is a small problem compared to, say, mosquito borne illness (which I am planning to write about soon).

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32 comments to Farming Ivory

  • My first thought was to wonder how the nature conservationists think it is worth that much human life to protect some animals.

    As long as they are volunteers rather than conscripts, I have no problem using force to defend (say) rhinos, and thus the casualties suffered were people willing to be part of that fight.

    But yes, I have long argued that the state’s response to poaching makes the situation worse, not better. Quelle surprise!

    Farming ivory is *of course* the logical thing to do, indeed creating an overabundance of the damn stuff would drive down the price which in turn would make the risk of getting killed during poaching simply not worth the effort.

  • I assume it wouldn’t take too long to come up with uses for the hides & meat of elephants & rhinos, once we had all these byproducts of ivory/rhino horn laying around. Pity there’s little chance of any countries in the area allowing ranchers the capital they’d need to set up their homesteads.

  • Roue le Jour

    I’m not sure ivory farming is economic. When I asked here in Thailand how much an elephant costs to feed I was told ten quid (500 Baht) a day.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Perry, point taken. Though their chosen policy leads to a lot of the violence, much as with the drug war.

    Roue le Jour: do you have to feed them, though, or just guard them? I suppose it depends whether your elephants are game, organic, free-range or battery farmed… In any case there must be some efficiencies to be found!

  • Philip Scott Thomas

    I ask because I have no idea: Do elephants have to be killed to harvest their tusks? Can they be tranqued instead? Are they able to live without tusks? Anyone know?

  • There is a slippery-slope problem with making ivory illegal. As a museum curator, I once imported (from England) an electrostatic generator made circa 1800. The difficulty of moving it across borders was significant. The way society’s — moral enthusiasm — is going, soon it could be completely illegal to transport, then to own, anything with ivory on it. Eventually, there will be a demand that all ivory be destroyed, along with what it’s attached to.

    And since for hundreds of years ivory has been used in technology, and pianos, and God knows what else, there will go a good chunk of our cultural history. Meanwhile, there are countries that will ignore that decision, and the entire world of ivory (and the sales of poachers) will move there, with no benefits to the elephants involved. When we all come to our senses we may try to get our history back. Good luck. Elgin marbles, *cough*.

    With the current sentiment towards prohibition, that’s possible. The US put prohibition in it’s bloody Constitution as an amendment, for Pete’s sake! It didn’t take all that long for us to decide that was a mistake and cancel it, but a lot of industries were damaged in the process, and it raised up a generation of scofflaws.

  • I suppose it depends whether your elephants are game, organic, free-range or battery farmed

    Hmm, if you battery-farmed elephants and force fed them, could you produce REALLY large foie gras? 😛

  • Sigivald

    Surely we need to banish forever the premise that animals on this planet are for here for the purpose of human beings’ exploitation & use – that their body parts are commodities to be farmed & harvested

    Surely we’re not going to, and also nobody cares what Peter Singer thinks.

    (Given the difficulty of farming elephants – in terms of cost relative to value extracted, since they take forever to grow up and produce ivory – we’re probably better off learning how to grow it in a vat or genetically engineer something to produce an indistinguishable organic matrix.

    This would not only be good for elephants, it’d be good for consumer goods and craftsmen, as ivory is a delightful material to handle and (I hear, having never, for obvious reasons, had a chance to do so firsthand) work with.

    Reminds me, I should but some fossilized mammoth ivory; that, at least, is still legal. For now. Until it “reminds someone that animals die and stuff” and the feels make them ban it.)

  • Paul Marks

    Perhaps science will find a way of creating ivory artificially (or via biotech?).

    But then the Greens would oppose that as well.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Perry de Havilland
    But yes, I have long argued that the state’s response [to poaching] makes the situation worse, not better.

    I suggest you delete the words in square brackets.

  • Fraser Orr

    I’m curious to know what you all think. Are there any animals that you think should not be farmed? For example, would you be OK with farming our nearest cousins the bonobo apes for meat? Were neanderthals still alive and a species, would you be OK farming them? Or Australopithecus?

    I don’t really know the answer, so I am curious to know the prevailing opinion here.

  • Rob

    I have heard a great deal about elephants being killed, even though I make no special effort to find out. But I had not idea a thousand rangers had been killed. You would think the progressive news organisations pushing the story of ivory poaching might also have mentioned that too.

  • Rob Fisher

    “REALLY large foie gras”. *This* is the kind of innovation only private investment can bring!

  • Rob Fisher

    “I have heard a great deal about elephants being killed, even though I make no special effort to find out. But I had not idea a thousand rangers had been killed.” Me too, now you mention it. I hadn’t considered that angle.

  • Jason Miller

    On my ivory farm, I will directly monetize my anti-poaching operations by selling tags to hunt The Most Dangerous Game. 😉

  • Phil B

    @Perry

    battery-farmed elephants and force fed them, [could you produce] REALLY large foie gras?

    It wouldn’t be the large foie gras I’d be worried about with battery elephants … gonna need a bigger shovel.

  • gongcult

    Just for a moment let’s do a thought experiment. Elephants certainly are not humans, moral creatures capable of good and evil, thus lacking in the basic conception of political rights. Their existence and well-being does not depend on the rule of law, constitutionalism or even and ethical framework. It merely relies upon their existence in nature and their abilities to obtain sustenance from the natural environment and avoid predators. So while their destruction from human predation might be seen in utilitarian terms- don’t destroy the species so that it can’t regenerate- these are not a protected class of individuals based on law. For what laws, justice and free-markets exist in an elephant community? If you can’t see that YOU HAVE NO CONCEPT OF RIGHTS. (I dare anyone to prove non-human animals have the concept of polity, democracy, free-speech, individualism and all the other necessary causes of the concepts of a protected sphere .)

  • Alisa

    Of course, gongcult. But note that not all such objections to the killing of animals are based on “rights” that said animals supposedly have – and even when they ostensibly are so based, this premise is often claimed dishonestly. Try another thought experiment: take any current public debate on whether this or that animal can or cannot be killed (for whatever purpose, including food – veganism being all the rage among the Nice People these days), but substitute some inanimate object commonly considered as valuable for the animal in question.

  • David Moore

    “soon it could be completely illegal to transport, then to own, anything with ivory on it. Eventually, there will be a demand that all ivory be destroyed, along with what it’s attached to.”

    The irony being that this will just make those remaining tusks even more valuable to poachers. Only Governments are capable of this level of stupidity.

  • Humans did not have all of those concepts throughout our history, even though the human animal is not different than he was in the stone age.

  • Fraser Orr, September 22, 2016 at 8:25 pm: “I’m curious to know what you all think. Are there any animals that you think should not be farmed?”

    Firstly (and not so seriously), every Briton knows the following:

    1) Dogs should not be eaten. Dogs are our friends and we don’t eat our friends. That unsporting Amundsen got to the south pole before Scott through eating his dogs, which just shows that people who play the game don’t do that kind of thing. The Chinese do it too, which shows it’s a disgraceful oriental habit and unBritish.

    2) Horses should not be eaten. Horses are for riding. Maybe the French got their taste for horse meat when Bonaparte’s army retreated from Moscow – and serve them right too. Decent people don’t eat horses.

    3) Cats taste awful, so if your soppy romantic date says cats shouldn’t be eaten for the same reason as dogs, don’t argue.

    4) Frenchmen eat frogs and snails so it’s clearly unBritish and should not be done – one must have some standards.

    HTH 🙂

    (A bit more seriously), as regards elephants, George Orwell, in his essay “Shooting an Elephant” vividly conveys the distress he feels. I think most British people would feel the same. So I would avoid killing elephant if I could, because they are very large and look wise and it just doesn’t feel right. I would happily train and use them, however, so I guess farming them for that purpose, and using the tusks after they die naturally, would be OK by me. Since they live a long time, the economics of this might press someone actually doing it towards culling the herd, with only a few living their natural span. If combining with wildlife tourism funds a longer lives, well and good; if not, I’m against farming elephants being banned, just as I’m against most other things being banned.

  • staghounds

    1. We have no idea at all whether elephants make what we call moral decisions or not. They sometimes appear to, but how can we tell? How can we tell, aside from their own statements, that people do?

    2. Ivory farming could never be profitable if the farmer had to bear the cost of feeding the elephant.

  • 2. Ivory farming could never be profitable if the farmer had to bear the cost of feeding the elephant.

    You greatly underestimate the ingenuity of capitalists. I envisage battery farmed elephants… 😉

  • Oh, and what Niall said. He knows what’s what! Sound chap, that Kilmartin fellow! Anything the French do (with the exception of bubbly and foie gras) is automatically a bit suspect.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    What if staghounds was right? That means elephants would either go extinct, or the people who claim to care so much about them would have to pay for their protection. Maybe they do to an extent (I’m not sure how park rangers are paid for), but the ivory trade ban and the parks look like ways for some people to enjoy elephants at other people’s expense. If you just privatise the game reserve you might find that real full cost includes bidding for the land against people who could put it to a more profitable use. I am not sure how minarchism fits in: would the state be responsible for stopping poachers from trespassing?

  • Fraser Orr

    @gongcult
    > For what laws, justice and free-markets exist in an elephant community? If you can’t see that YOU HAVE NO CONCEPT OF RIGHTS.

    But hold on, you are missing a piece of your argument. Why does the fact that a community has laws, justice and free markets somehow mean that they are consequentially right to demand their bodies not be exploited?

    And what about my other question. Neanderthals? Can we eat them were they still around? Other early humans? Babies? Communists (after all they have little law, justice or free markets.) Can we have communist au vin?

    And as to Perry’s comments on the French, sure they are a little dodgy, but their food and wine is one thing they do well. As we say here in America: “would you like freedom fries with that?”

  • Alisa

    I find the thought of eating communists repulsive – but hey, as Niall shows, some people eat frogs and snails, and even roaches…

  • Alisa

    Fraser, to answer your question – if it is about legal prohibition, rather than about personal culinary preferences – I am against prohibiting anything, and leaving things to work themselves out through social pressure. Far from perfect, I know – but that’s true with any other approach.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I am currently reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. There are a couple of points he makes that may – or may not – be pertinent here. The first is that Africa is pretty much the only continent which is home to large mammals. This is because they e.g mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers were wiped out everywhere else – often by humans.

    The second is that very few animals eg. pig, horse, cattle that have ever been domesticated. There are thousands of candidates but the vast majority fall down in some way: not useful enough, tendency to panic, not herdable, dangerous to humans etc.

    Another point. All this squeamishness about killing or even wiping out large animals. Our ancestors had not problem with it at all even to the extent of wiping out creatures like the dodo, quagga and great auk. A hundred years ago no large house would be complete without stuffed African mammal heads adorning the walls. Concern about elephants is very much a recent thing for rich people. It maybe that the only real hope for elephants etc is that Africans get rich enough, fast enough and can afford to be bothered about their fate.

  • Phil B

    There are several interrelated factors that make elephant farming sensible (though you are going to have to get it past the Disney Bambi sentimental people – good luck attempting that):

    1) Population pressure – the last time I bothered to check (about 15 years ago), the population of Rhodesia had increased five fold since WW2. This means people need the land occupied by wildlife to grow crops and inevitably there is a conflict between animals and humans. Same for the rest of Africa, I should imagine.

    2) Soil – Africa (and the tropics in general) have poor soil. The temperatures are so high that vegetation cannot compost down and hence soils are nutrient and humus poor and unable to sustain a high density of crops of any description. Elephants eat a LOT and need large areas to sustain themselves. This has two knock on effects:
    a) they conflict with farmers (Elephants will dine on a maize field and eat it out in a night for example)
    b) they roam vast distances in search of food and don’t recognise park or national boundaries so are vulnerable from the population of a non protective country.

    3) Diet preferences – an elephant provides a lot of protein and (peace, vegans) humans like to eat meat. Why not kill two birds with one stone and get rid of an animal that is destroying your crops leading to famine and have protein too? A no brainer for the locals.

    4) Poverty – if you are living hand to mouth and by killing an elephant for its ivory, then you can get several years living expenses in a few days effort, you would be mad not to. It is all fine and well living in the west with a full belly and a welfare state to tut tut and condemn them but reality is that they do not have that luxury. Economically developing the continent and providing an incentive to earn a living other than by killing wildlife may be a better solution.

    5) No property rights. Where no one “owns” the elephants, the local population has no incentive NOT to kill them. Where hunting safaris are allowed which return to the local people work, meat and cash and other benefits, then by maintaining a managed and controlled harvesting of the animals, the locals can see the benefits. They are more likely to leave the animals alone than to kill them indiscriminately. Managing a population of elephants and selectively culling them to maintain a stable number in a given area would be one way of gaining an income, food and jobs.

    Try reading THIS for a typical poacher operation in Africa and the reaction of the natives. That, and the punishment.

    You can’t remove the elephants tusks when alive. They use them for stripping bark from trees and other foraging tasks and when eating grass, they uproot it and bash the soil off on a tusk. Older elephants are “handed” just like humans and their working tusk has a groove worn near the end due to this. So they need their tusks. Tondo elephants which do not grow tusks are aggressive due to their need to bully other elephants for their food. They are dangerous to humans as they don’t back down.

    By forbidding controlled hunting, the problem won’t go away. Releasing a controlled and sustainable (Hawk! Spit! How I hate that overused and hijacked word) amount onto the market would likely allow viable numbers to be maintained.

    Will it happen? What do you think …

  • Patrick Crozier, September 24, 2016 at 8:43 am: Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel… very few animals… have ever been domesticated … the vast majority fall down in some way …”

    Jared overstates his case significantly. He is, it may be said, a defence lawyer whose ‘client’ is those cultures that have not achieved as much as others. Some of his points have content, others are overstated. His ‘domesticated’ point is overstated. (For example, there was a myth that African Elephants were not domesticable, but Hannibal found differently and a century ago colonialists also found differently. Many another point could be made.

    I do not regret reading Jared but he should very definitely be read with one’s critical faculties fully awake.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Well, Chapter 1 (or is it the introduction?) is a disaster and it made me almost want to toss the book away.