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Namibia Says No to Destroying Its Huge Ivory and Rhino Horn Stockpile

By Adam Cruise

Pohamba Shifeta, Namibia’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, said the country will not destroy its stockpile of ivory and rhino horns—a measure adopted by other countries in Africa and elsewhere to combat poaching by raising public awareness and removing the possibility of the products going onto the black market.

Speaking to a Namibian newspaper, the minister said that “burning of ivory and rhino horn is against our policy.” Article 95 of country’s constitution, he said, “clearly stipulates how Namibians should benefit from their natural resources as long as they do it sustainably.”

The stockpile consists of tusks and horns accumulated through confiscation from poachers, natural death, culling of herds, and an active policy of de-horning rhinos as a deterrent against poachers. It’s a hoard reputedly worth billions of U.S. dollars.

To destroy or not to destroy? Photograph by Adam Cruise.
To destroy or not to destroy? Photograph by Adam Cruise.

Shifeta expects Namibia to make a windfall if the CITES-enforced international bans on trading ivory and rhino horn are lifted.

“We will get a lot of money, and the proceeds will go to state coffers to alleviate poverty,” he said.

In the past, Namibia was one of a small group of southern African countries that CITES has allowed to sell their ivory stockpiles. In 1999, a “one-off” ivory sale was authorized for Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia to buyers in Japan.

And in 2008 South Africa joined that trio for a collective sale of 102 tons of ivory to the Chinese government, which in turn has been selling it off to Chinese traders at a profit.

The One-Off Mistake

The 2008 sale has been widely condemned as the trigger for the current crisis in elephant poaching, with more than 100,000 African elephants killed for their tusks in the three years from 2010 to 2012.

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an organization committed to investigating environmental crime and abuse, the sale stimulated a greater demand for ivory, confused consumers about the legality of buying ivory, and created a supply stream for laundering poached ivory.

A report published this month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) says that allowing legal sales “created a gray area that is impossible to regulate as it is often impossible to distinguish legal ivory from illegal ivory.”

USFWS’s Chief of Public Affairs, Gavin Shire, says that “our criminal investigations and anti-smuggling efforts have clearly shown that legal ivory trade has been serving as a cover for illegal trade.”

Since 2008, the consensus among CITES parties has been to concentrate on demand reduction by sending a clear message that ivory and rhino horn are off-limits.

A Family of elephants gathers at the water's edge in Namibia's Caprivi area. Photograph by Adam Cruise.
A family of elephants gathers at the water’s edge in Namibia’s Caprivi area. Photograph by Adam Cruise.

Adam Welz, the African representative of WildAid, which works to reduce consumption by persuading consumers against buying wildlife products, says that selling a product like rhino horn “is promoting the same myth that the criminal syndicates are peddling—that rhino horn is a product that actually works.”

He also says that if countries are allowed to sell their stockpiles of rhino horn and ivory, it “will undo all the hard work to reduce demand that WildAid have been conducting in China and other Asian countries over the past two years.”

That hard work centers on a consumer-awareness campaign involving celebrities like Hollywood film stars Jackie Chan and Leonardo diCaprio.

Bucking the Trend

During the past three years, some of the major ivory-consumers—notably China, Hong Kong, Thailand, and the Philippines—have publicly destroyed part of their stockpiles of confiscated ivory to send an awareness-raising message that ivory and rhino products are off-limits.

End product - crushed ivory. Photograph by Adam Cruise.
End product: crushed ivory. Photograph by Adam Cruise.
A Belgian customs officer feeds a confiscated tusk into crushing machine at a public ivory crush in April 2014. Photograph by Adam Cruise.
A Belgian customs officer feeds a confiscated tusk into a crushing machine in April 2014. Photograph by Adam Cruise.

Kenya, Mozambique, Gabon, Chad, Ethiopia, and the Republic of Congo are elephant range states that have burned their ivory stockpiles, and various transit (and consumer) countries—USA, France, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and the United Arab Emirates—have crushed stockpiles of ivory and rhino horn confiscated from criminal traders over the decades.

Namibia’s Shifeta questions the benefit of destroying stockpiles. “We are trying to search for the logic behind burning as a demonstration, protest, or deterrent. I do not see the reason why we should do that as Namibians. I always ask people, why don’t we do the same with diamonds when we confiscate them from thieves? Do we destroy them, throw them away or burn them?”

Gavin Shire says that the U.S. aims to “encourage countries with stockpiles of illegal ivory to destroy those stocks to send the message that we stand together in our efforts to stop poaching and illegal trade—and to ensure that this contraband ivory never again enters the market.”

He says that “with regard to the legal stockpiles held by a few African elephant range states, we do not believe the conditions exist for allowing renewed trade in elephant ivory without that trade contributing to the ongoing poaching crisis.”

Shifeta cites another reason to sell Namibia’s stockpile: the high cost of storing and securing rhino horn and ivory caches. In May, thieves raided a police storeroom holding Mozambique’s largest ever haul of confiscated rhino horn and ivory, making off with 12 horns valued at more than a million dollars.

But destroying stockpiles also eliminates the cost and security concern.

The USFWS believes that last month’s very public and well-publicized ivory destruction in New York’s Times Square, one of the most visited places on Earth, will help slow down consumption by deterring people, as Shire puts it, who “might not understand the connection between their decision to buy ivory and slaughtered elephants.”

Proposal to Legalize Trade

It’s widely expected that at the next CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17), in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2016, Namibia—along with Zimbabwe and one or two other southern African nations—will counter the thinking that destroying stockpiles helps reduce poaching and smuggling.

Of the four countries that benefited from the 2008 ivory sale, only Botswana has stated that it’s no longer willing to sell its ivory.

Although Botswana’s anti-poaching campaigns have not yet included the destruction of stockpiled ivory, according to a press release issued on July 16 by the wildlife and tourism ministry, the country is “committed to ensuring that such specimen[s] remain beyond any economic use.”

South Africa is likely to table a proposal to CITES at Cop17 to legalize the international trade in rhino horn, possibly supported by Zimbabwe and Namibia, which stand to benefit once again from their considerable stashes.

Adam Cruise has a philosophy degree in environmental and animal ethics from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. He specializes in wildlife conservation and wildlife crime and has traveled throughout the continent documenting and commenting on the key conservation issues and crises that face the continent.