Ivory Stockpiles: Should We Burn Them and If So Why?

French Customs with the illegal ivory stockpile before crushing and burning it. Image from: Remy de la Mauviniere/ AP

France was in the news on Thursday for destroying all three tonnes of its illegal ivory stocks. The aim of this was to send a clear message to those involved in wildlife crime: the illegal trade in ivory will not be tolerated. So why do countries have ivory stockpiles?

Ivory and rhino horn were banned from international trade by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989. Since then countries haven’t know what to do with ivory and rhino horn which they have confiscated, so they’ve formed it into stockpiles. It should be noted that the ban was temporarily removed to permit stockpiles from certain African countries to be sold off in 1999 and 2008.

The second sale of ivory is seen by many as a massive mistake. The supports of the sale argued that the selling of stockpiles was no bad thing, flooding the market with ivory should lower prices. Many people use ivory as a status of wealth, if it suddenly becomes less valuable then demand from the rich should decrease. However, from what can be seen this did not happen. Buyers in destination countries such as Japan and China saw the sale as a signal that ivory was now readily available. The demand for ivory and rhino horn has increased rapidly since 2008, along with the poaching rate. If the illegal trade is not reduced soon, then rhinos and elephants are looking at extinction in the not too distant future. 

So should we burn stockpiles? There isn’t a great history on stockpiles being stored securely. In many countries officials are tempted by bribes as they simply don’t earn much, resulting in them sneaking out ivory and rhino horn from the stockpiles to sell to dealers. In one case an entire stockpile was stolen and replaced with plastic replicas so it looked like nothing had gone missing. Some are keeping hold of stockpiles in the hope that CITES will allow another sale, and there are certainly those petitioning for this to happen. The money earned from these sales is meant to go back into elephant and rhino conservation, but it still isn’t clear whether that happened in either 1999 or 2008. I think they would have to guarantee the money went to conservation for another sale to be approved.

I just hope that the burning of stockpiles at the moment, and the subsequent media coverage, really does have an impact on the illegal trade. In my opinion though, stockpiles just shouldn’t be allowed. As a friend pointed out to me, it’s like keeping hold of a bunch of gold and not expecting someone to steal it. In fact the price of ivory and rhino horn is often more than the price of illegal diamonds and gold. So if I could have my way, I would simply burn any ivory or rhino horn that was found to be illegal straight away to remove the temptation. I say ‘found to be illegal’ because hunting of elephant and rhino in some countries is still allowed, but only if you have a permit. The tusks and horn can then be taken back as hunting trophies, however they are often illegally sold. My thoughts on that can be found here. In conclusion, I think yes we definitely need to burn ivory stockpiles and any more ivory that is found, straight away.

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Review: Blackfish

Image from: suffolkvoice.net

Rating: 3.5/4.0 star

This documentary is a must-see for anyone, especially those interested in animal welfare. It follows the story of Tilikum, an orca, killer whale or blackfish, whichever name you prefer.

Tilikum, or Tilly was captured from the wild and we are shown what has happened to him since then, being shunted around various marine mammal parks. In one park the animals were kept in a tiny pen, here there was no chance to get away from one another and aggression built up, and as such Tilly was often ‘raked’. (Raking is the process whereby orca whales scratch each other with their teeth to assert dominance; Tilly was bottom of the social hierarchy.) The general consensus is that over the years being kept in unnatural proximity to other whales has made Tilly psychotic.

Orcas are highly social animals, often travelling in groups of 40-50 individuals, all of which are related. What SeaWorld and Sealand of the Pacific have done is taken a few of these individuals out of the wild, and placed them with other orcas they have no relation to. It’s not natural and no wonder aggression occurs.

Below are some orca facts that the film touches on:

  • Average Lifespan: Females: 50 years in the wild, 20-30 years in captivity ; Males: 50-60 years in the wild, 30 years in captivity (sometimes wild orcas have lived up to 80 years old)
  • Dorsal fin collapse isn’t common in the wild. There are several theories to it’s cause, but it may be due to swimming in small circles in captivity, due to reduced space.
  • There have been no reported fatal attacks on humans in the wild.

It should also be pointed out that orcas come from the same family as dolphins, an example of another mammal which should not be kept in captivity, but still is. There is a heart rending moment when one of the female orcas can be seen and heard screaming when her calf is taken away from her.

What I find shocking is that SeaWorld managed to hide many of the attacks on trainers as ‘incidents’ and often other trainers had no idea anything had happened. Hiding 70 human injuries really isn’t something to be proud of, and any trust you may have had in SeaWorld is certainly gone by this point.

I just feel sorry that Tilikum has ended up killing three people, it’s not his fault and it’s not the trainers fault. Imagine being kept in only a few rooms of a house, knowing there is a whole world outside where you once could go. The trainers themselves have mostly been brainwashed into thinking that what they do is actually helping the animals. The moment in the film when you hear during an orca show ‘The whales aren’t doing this because they have to, they are doing it because they want to’ set my teeth on edge. No, that’s a big fat lie, the orcas just do it because if they don’t, you won’t give them any fish.

SeaWorld’s official response to this documentary did make me laugh. It says the film ‘exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues’. I highly doubt that as they feature in the documentary, if they didn’t want to then they wouldn’t be in it. The family clearly think the world should know and rightly so. The statement then continues to try and make us look at the good points of SeaWorld, as it does carry out research as well as rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals. However, a zoological institution should know better than to continue to keep orcas in captivity. If they could just accept what they are doing is wrong, and release them back into the wild, then you could almost forgive them. Let’s hope no more human lives have to be lost before they take action.

The problem I have with this documentary is that it lacks the scientific background behind why Tilly, and other whales, shouldn’t be kept in captivity. Whales, and dolphins rely on echolocation and have brilliant hearing, so the noise of crowds and screaming is like daily torture. Consequently they are often depressed, and can even commit suicide (yes, they are conscious breathers).

However, at the very least this documentary should make you want to boycott SeaWorld (if you hadn’t already) and Loro Parque, in fact all marine mammal parks. If you want to see orcas or dolphins see them in the wild, it’s their natural environment. They are too intelligent to be cooped up, if we can fight for free range eggs, then we sure can fight for the freedom of marine mammals. I’d highly recommend watching The Cove, the Blackfish equivalent for dolphins, which provides a greater scientific understanding as to why we should leave marine mammals be.

Here’s a petition for the release of Tilikum into a seapen, as he is too damaged and old to be set free in the wild: http://www.change.org/petitions/seaworld-inc-humanely-release-the-orca-whale-known-as-tilikum-to-a-seapen-for-rehab

Sources:

http://animals.nationalgeographic.co.uk/animals/mammals/killer-whale/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captive_killer_whales

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/killerwhale.htm