Illar Muul PhD 11 Jul 2013  EWR
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President and Founder of Integrated Conservation Research

The previous articles sought to analyze the information presented in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Magazine: "Blood Ivory." Anyone reading this detailed presentation of the problem would become justifiably outraged.

However, the conservation world seems to be unable to resolve the problem and estimates presented indicate that 25,000 elephants are being killed annually for their ivory. Photos show confiscated ivory from even juvenile animals. Strategies to reduce the demand have included a ban on ivory trade and periodic burning of tons of ivory. The result has been that owing to temporary scarcity, the price in illegal trade have increased 20 fold. The higher prices have led to greater incentives to poach.

This vicious (literally) cycle is not unlike the war on drugs. It is also similar to the prohibition of production and sales of alcohol decades ago. The demand for ivory has not decreased, and the illegal trade thrives and grows.

Attempts to push down prices by periodic legal sales of confiscated ivory have also not worked. Buyers from countries that still use ivory colluded to drive down auction sale prices and stockpiled the ivory to sell it later when supplies became scarcer, and prices rose. In short, many strategies have been used which are sometimes counterproductive and different interest groups are in conflict.

Our organization, Integrated Conservation Research (www.incores.org) has been operating for 25 year on the basis of the concept of "critical mass." The concept applies not just to save one species, but to save the communities in which the species is a part. The goal is to replace ecologically unsustainable practices (such as illegal hunting) with ecologically sustainable practices which are also economically sustainable. "Critical Mass" is reached when the local income from ecologically sustainable activities exceeds that of unsustainable ones. We summarize this with, "Doing well by doing good."

Efforts by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, for example, are fragmented because they operate on the basis of interest groups:

The Tiger Group
The Elephant Group
The Pheasant Group, etc., etc.

The non-government organizations (NGOs) are similarly fragmented:

Save the Elephants
Save the Cheetahs
Save the Gorillas, etc., etc.

Our strategy could apply to elephants, but not just elephants. It needs to include the local people, the "stakeholders."

Money from the legal sales of ivory probably went to governments to hire more rangers, who are often not local, to protect the elephants. But, not enough money is available to protect all of the remaining half million elephants. Some places "arms races" have developed, with rangers and poachers both escalating to using automatic weapons and rocket launchers, and poison (which is silent).

Sometimes local economies are disrupted by outlawing sale of traditionally used "bush-meat." The pressure by NGO's for conservation of land for pasture to raise cattle conflicts with needs of elephants.

Decades ago thorough research studies showed that much more meat could be harvested sustainably from mixed herds of native ungulates in Africa than from cattle that would replace them. Added to the ungulates are various species of "bush meat", including grass rats, the size of domestic rabbits. Grass rats have high reproductive rates and total annual protein production likely exceeds that from cattle that require 2 years to mature. Also, cattle suffer from various parasites and diseases.

In Ghana where I worked, the road-side stands that sold bush meat displayed many species. I was astonished to find that grass rats were priced higher than the "beautiful" royal antelope (the smallest antelope in the area). Apparently, the rats are preferred locally. To increase the production of grass rats, they could be semi-domesticated. The red jungle fowl, which is the wild species from which domestic chickens were derived lays a few dozen eggs per year. Some breeds of domestic chickens produce about 300 per year.

The local "take" of bush meat sometimes include protected species, like royal antelope. Sometimes primates are included, such as the "green monkeys." But, this monkey species is abundant, not endangered, and often a pest to agriculture.

All this needs to be sorted out, of course, but to simply ban all bush meat seems counterproductive. Replacing bush meat with domestic beef destroys most of the habitat and food sources for species included in "bush meat", some being species we seek to protect. And, food sources for elephants would be greatly reduced. Much more ecological degradation and cultural degradation for native populations of humans would also result.

So, what can be done specifically? That, dear reader, will be covered in the next article.

Editor’s Note:

A fund has been set up by:
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Email: illar@incores.org; illar.muul@gmail.com
Website: www.incores.org
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