From The New York Times, October 1, 2002
Don't Resume the Elephant Harvest
By MATTHEW SCULLY
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
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
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."