Remember the TV documentary back in the 80s and early 90s showing elephants being shot down with machine guns from helicopters? Remember the sight of poachers hacking tusks off with cheap axes and machetes? Remember the stirring scenes of elephant carcasses littering the grasslands -- victims of a trade that sought to profit from ivory and animal parts?
These images, disseminated on TV and in photographs, have been common in the West for at least 30 years. Orenstein's book reminds us that, if anything, the poaching crisis has escalated, taking a huge toll of animal as well as human life right up to the present day. This is a well written, well informed, and well documented book on the elephant and rhino poaching crisis in Africa and Asia. The author, Ronald Orenstein, has a longstanding expertise on this subject. We learn in the Preface that he worked on the legal side of CITES (treaty on trade of endangered species) in the 1980s and has continued to actively engage and follow developments in the poaching and ivory trading crisis over the last several decades.
The book follows a clear structure divided into three parts: (1) What Happened? (2) What Went Wrong? (3) What Can Be Done? Throughout the book's 19 chapters, there is a back-and-forth discussion that jumps from elephants to rhinos and back again, but the challenges of poaching and illicit trade involving the two species complement each other, and the principles of conservation and solutions to be found are two currents flowing in the same stream. Saving rhinos and saving elephants are, in other words, two sides of the same coin and must be considered together. Part 1 of the book gives some biological background on both elephants and rhinos and discusses past issues involving their hunting and conservation. The following chapters then discuss the trade in ivory and horns, beginning with the supply side (in, say, Africa), including why poachers choose to poach, and ending with a discussion of the demand side, including why people buy horns and ivory (primarily in China and Vietnam, as of 2013).
Readers will find many interesting facts interspersed with Orenstein's trenchant analysis. He tells us, for instance, that ancient Egyptian and Roman demand for ivory was probably so great that it accounted for the extinction of elephants north of the Sahara. Others might find it interesting to learn that rhino horns regrow if removed correctly (like hair or fingernails), and that a recent strategy to deter poaching is to saw off the horn and thus remove the reason for killing them (a somewhat costly strategy, it turns out). The author also tells us that, contrary to popular belief, most Asians do NOT regard rhino horn as an aphrodisiac -- it was a myth of European origin, he claims. Rather, it is used for other medicinal reasons, to flaunt wealth or status, as a gift, or for other purposes.
Orenstein ends Part 1 of the book with a more detailed discussion of the recent history of conservation. He explains the history of CITES (the "Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which came into force in 1973 and has been amended numerous times since. The author identifies a key moment occurring in 1989. By that year, the elephant population in East Africa had declined by 80 percent or more, despite hunting bans on Kenya and Tanzania. At the same time, several countries, including Kenya, were earning large incomes from tourism and were thus keen to save the wildlife upon which the lucrative tourism industries depended. Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Gambia, Hungary, Austria, and the United States endorsed a new policy that outlawed what was left of the *legal* trade in ivory. The United States, EU, and others backed this ban with national policies. As Orenstein explains later, this had a profound effect on the poaching crisis, bringing great success that was later derailed by concessions to the "legal-trade" school of conservation.
One of the author’s main argument is that total bans on the trade of ivory and rhino horn are the most effective means of curtailing its trade. Before the 1989 ban, illegal ivory could be poached in Africa and sold as if it was legal. The buyer would never know the difference between legal and illegal products. Consumer demand would thus remain high on the assumption that ivory he was buying must be legal, which was rarely the case. What the ban accomplished, then, was to send the message that ALL ivory trade was illegal, ending the back-door route by which poached ivory had made its way to the market. “The initial success of the ban was considerable,” Orenstein concludes.
So what went wrong? Orenstein argues that, before the CITES bans could achieve total success, alternative strategies gained influence. There was an old and established belief among many that banning a desirable commodity would only drive the trade underground, where it could not be controlled by responsible governments or international bodies. Prohibition and the drug war had failed for this reason, the opponents argued, and so would the CITES ban. Even The Economist magazine agreed that bans would simply drive the trade underground. The problem with this argument, Orenstein argues, is that ivory is not an illicit drug or an intoxicating beverage to be purchased on back alleys. Most buyers wanted legal ivory, purchased through legitimate outlets. Many of them were wealthy and upper class and wanted social prestige, not a quick drug high or a bottle of moonshine. Without the ban, illegal ivory would be sold as if it was legal. The success of CITES came precisely because it closed off the possibility of laundering lucrative illegal ivory as if it was legitimately obtained.
Nevertheless, pressure mounted to repeal CITES and to allow at least a limited trade in animal commodities. The opponents of CITES were well meaning but terribly misguided, Orenstein believes. They thought that, if ivory could be sold responsibility and legally, the money could be plowed back into saving other animals in parks and reserves. This idea is neat in principle and works in favor of many small game ranches and conservation interests. It also helped beleaguered governments holding large stocks of ivory that could not be sold under the terms of the treaty. But, as Orenstein insists (rightly in my opinion), opening the legal trade of ivory and rhino horn to several responsible parties makes it impossible to keep illegal poached ivory and rhino from being mixed in and laundered as if it was legal. Once the market was opened back up and buyers grew accustomed to seeing ivory and rhino horn in shops, it was impossible to keep the illegal goods from shops. Demand and prices skyrocketed. The result was a massive illegal slaughter carried out by heavily armed and organized militias that continue to roam the gamelands.
Orenstein’s book traces the struggle against poaching right up to the present day by reference to a large amount of literature and news material on the subject. He explains the surge in prices of these animal commodities, the efforts to curb poaching, the successes and missteps along the way, and the policies that can be adopted in the twenty-first century. His book is, in my opinion, an excellent survey of the subject, and it has the benefit of being written by a well-informed individual with a talent for writing and vast experience with his subject.