Can competing schools of elephant conservation find common ground?

Some elephant conservationists are calling for a total ban on ivory, while others argue that a regulated market would better protect the animals. Can the two sides cooperate?

(c) Art Wolfe/
For decades, elephant conservation groups have been locked in debate over how best to stem the slaughter of elephants for their ivory. A team of scientists is urging conservationists to attempt to find common ground, for the sake of the elephants.

Imagine that an elephant approaches a village inhabited by blind men. Having never encountered such a creature, each approaches with arms outstretched eager to feel what they cannot see.

One man, touching a leg, declares the beast thick and strong like a tree trunk. Another, after encountering the trunk, describes the animal as squirmy like a snake. A third, after feeling the tip of a tusk, notes it is sharp like a spear. Eventually, a sighted man arrives and informs the men that they are all partly right but that they are also all wrong, a product of perceptions formed in isolation.

This ancient Indian parable offers a valuable lesson for the challenge facing elephant conservationists today, says wildlife researcher Gao Yufang. For decades, two distinct camps of elephant advocates have butted heads over how best to protect elephants. Each group has been so focused on their unique perspective that they have become blind to the entirety of the issue – and the common ground they share.

“We are all limited by our own perspective,” says Mr. Gao, a PhD student at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in New Haven, Conn. “People tend to see the same problem in very different ways.”

Elephant conservationists share a common goal to halt the slaughter of elephants for their ivory. But they diverge into two distinct approaches toward that mutual aim: some advocate for a total prohibition of ivory on moral grounds while others see practical value in overseeing a regulated market.

At the root of the debate lies a fundamental clash of perspectives on the best way to discourage undesirable behavior, through blanket prohibition or through controlled regulation. It's a theme that has surfaced repeatedly in conversations around controlling the abuse of alcohol, gambling, and smoking.

Little cooperation so far

Elephant conservationists have seen some success in recent years. According to 2016 data, from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), poaching of African elephants has declined since its peak in 2011. However, poaching rates still remain higher than natural population growth, which means the overall population continues to decline. Advocates argue that is evidence a more concerted effort is needed to stem the tide.

Karen Norris and Story Hinckley/Staff

Advocates for a regulated market assume there will always be a demand for ivory. They presume it best to satiate that demand with tusks harvested from elephants that have died of natural causes and invest the profits in conservation. Advocates of a total ivory ban counter that an absolute prohibition provides consumers and law enforcement officials a clear line of demarcation that eliminates any possible gray area.

There has been little cooperation between these two groups, as evidenced by the contradictory proposals that each have advanced over the years. Frustrated by nearly 30 years of debate, Gao and nearly two dozen scientists have banded together in a call to unite these two causes for good.

On Dec. 14, the researchers outlined a five-step process to break through the current impasse in the journal Science. The first step, they say, is to bring the two sides to discuss their goals for elephant conservation, with the aim of highlighting not just where their objectives diverge but also where there is common ground.

The truly difficult work needs to begin with a respectful discussion of “taboo trade-offs” between conflicting secular and sacred values – in other words, a search for common ground between one stakeholder’s sense of morality and another’s practicality. During this discussion, stakeholders should prepare to feel uncomfortable and to address “moral outrage,” says Robert Scholes, a co-author of the report and ecologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“You can’t sweep the emotional aspect under the rug and say that doesn’t count,” says Professor Scholes. “You have to develop a process that considers people’s values, the evidence, and uses both to come to a workable outcome.”

Getting both sides to the table

Getting stakeholders to the table may be prove difficult, as some see these suggestions as more cycling through the same debate that has been hashed out for years. Even some among the original group of scientists who collaborated on the recent report had trouble reaching total consensus.

Some felt that the paper should advocate for one position over the other, but the majority of collaborators felt this would “raise the stakes, not calm them,” explains Scholes. This choice meant that a few original authors who fell on the extreme sides of the debate backed out of the paper during production because they felt that placing each side on equal footing created a false equivalency.

Still Scholes is confident that common ground can be found, because this approach has worked before.

In the mid-to-late 20th century conservationists were at a similar impasse over how to keep elephant herds in check. Advocates of controlled kills argued that culling was necessary to disrupt the cycle of spikes in population leading to shortages of food. Between 1967 and 1995, wildlife managers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park killed more than 14,500 elephants, a practiced that was strongly opposed by anti-culling advocates.

But the conversation changed when the two groups came together and realized that they had the same objective.

“It was by understanding that we weren’t fighting about elephants,” says Scholes, “we were fighting about the appropriate way to treat them in different circumstances.”

Now, instead of culling, the park’s wildlife managers rely on indirect methods such as reducing artificial water supplies that had allowed elephants to survive droughts and fostered unnatural population booms.

The solution to resolving the ivory impasse could be similarly simple, says Duan Biggs, lead author of the report and ecologist at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

“This is not rocket science,” says Professor Biggs. “We now need to have the political will to implement common sense so we can move forward, get past this deadlock, and focus on conserving elephants.”

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