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From The New York Times, October 1, 2002

Don't Resume the Elephant Harvest


Of all creatures on Earth, elephants surely rate the sympathy of Republicans, and in many ways we have stood by our party's symbol through their many troubles. After a decade in which ivory poachers had taken their AK-47's to 700,000 elephants — compared to the 500,000 or so still with us — a Republican president signed the African Elephant Conservation Act of 1988. A Republican president boldly applied that law in 1989, barring ivory imports and initiating a worldwide ban, and in January of this year a Republican president reauthorized the law.

Yet now there is talk in Washington of reversing this policy, and leaving elephants again at the mercy of the ivory trade. Among the mostly conservative Republicans who follow these matters, America's commitment to protecting the elephant has never sat well. A few in Congress and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which will make recommendations on the issue, are trying to persuade the Bush administration to support a plan by five African states, led by Zimbabwe and South Africa, to allow a permanent resumption of legal but "limited" ivory sales.

A vote on whether to end the ivory ban will come early next month at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. America's decision will be made in the coming weeks, and Kenya, India and other nations opposed to ivory trading are counting on our nation's help to turn back the proposal.

Republicans of a more libertarian stripe do not like the idea of granting legal protections to any creature as such. They argue that elephants are a resource and ivory a commodity like any other. What matters is not this particular creature's fate, but whether ivory "stocks" are being properly managed.

What comes next is one of those libertarian environmental arguments that's supposed to sound brilliantly counterintuitive, while actually displaying an appalling moral blindness to the problem at issue: We can keep the elephants alive only by keeping alive the demand for ivory, since that alone is what gives elephants their value.

Never mind that even the ivory-hunting mayhem of the 1980's only inflamed demand for yet more of the stuff. And never mind that every recent experiment in limited ivory sales has failed. The seizure of six tons of ivory in Singapore this summer is clear evidence of ivory sales far in excess of quotas.

According to the sustainable use argument, the real problem is not the butchery of elephants, but merely the pace of butchery, and who gets to do the butchering. Western trophy hunters, who bear responsibility for the elephants' other travails, make a similar argument: The continued existence of elephants in their habitat depends, we are told, on the very desire of certain human beings to hunt and kill these creatures.

We are not encouraged in sustainable use theory to think much about why such people wish to kill elephants — to serve the silliest of vanities, like trophies and trinkets. The crucial point, as libertarians argue, is that only "privatized elephants" have value — "paying their own way" through a systematic harvesting of ivory and trophies.

The case for ivory hunting is also based on "sound science" — a phrase that libertarian Republicans now toss around at random to lend an air of rational detachment to any statement on any environmental subject. Thus Representative Richard Pombo, Republican of California, a sustainable use man and a champion of trophy hunting, has written to Secretary of State Colin Powell insisting "that any future policy regarding various species — whether the subject species are elephants, whales, turtles, or trees — be based on sound science."

Secretary Powell was too busy or too polite to write back explaining to Mr. Pombo the difference between an elephant and a tree. But there actually is a difference, readily perceived both by sound science and by simple human decency.

We are talking here about intelligent mammals whose entire population was cut in half in a single decade. Even now swarms of poachers slaughter thousands of elephants every year.

Such is the trauma inflicted on the herds that scientists have lately noticed a strange frequency of both African and Asian elephants born with no tusks at all. By a genetic quirk a tiny percentage of male elephants have always been tuskless. Now, as if evolution itself were trying to spare them from human avarice, that gene is spreading because the tuskless ones are often the only ones left to breed.

The ivory ban has not been perfect but it has been merciful, reflecting humanity's ability to appreciate the goodness of these creatures, to see the wrong done to them and to search for ways to right it. If anything, enforcement of the ban must be redoubled in years to come by destroying the market for ivory through sanctions against offending nations, as Kenya's Daily Nation has urged.

When this proposal to turn the creatures back over to the ivory trade comes passing through the White House, meanwhile, let it be dispatched with the contempt it deserves. In the carnage and terror they have endured, elephants have already "paid their own way" — with a security deposit for decades to come. And the ones left have plenty of value just as they are, without need of men with guns and machetes to give it to them.

Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for President Bush, is author of "Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy."

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