Will legalizing the ivory trade save elephants?: Social media campaign #KnotOnMyPlanet highlights elephant population in crisis

A recent social media campaign, #KnotOnMyPlanet, inundated newsfeeds last week. With high-profile celebrities––like supermodel spokeswoman Doutzen Kroes––pledging to the cause, #KnotOnMyPlanet runs in a similar vein as the once-popular ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. In an effort to raise awareness about the illegal ivory trade, the challenge involves tying a knot from a piece of clothing and posting the picture on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram with the hashtag #KnotOnMyPlanet, then subsequently donating to the Elephant Crisis Fund. So far, the challenge has mostly been attempted by individuals in the fashion industry with few ties to the cause.

The reality of the ivory crisis has had devastating impacts on the elephant population. In the past three years, over 100,000 elephants in Central Africa have been poached for their ivory tusks. It is estimated that elephant populations across Africa have plummeted by 95 per cent over the past century––likely due to high demand for precious ivory tusks which can be valued up to $2,100 USD per kilogram.

#KnotOnMyPlanet is not the only effort dedicated to poaching preventions. In an opinion column to National Geographic, Dan Stiles suggests that the solution lies in legalizing the ivory trade so that poachers can harvest ivory sustainably.

“With a legal raw ivory trade, elephants can thrive,” Stiles said.

This idea has been debated before. The governments of Namibia and Zimbabwe have proposed that some elephant populations are healthy enough to be managed for ivory production. Both countries are expected to bring up this debate at the 17th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 5 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“The ivory ban is a total failure,” Rowan Martin, Zimbabwe’s representative to CITES, said to National Geographic in August.

Instead, as Martin has crafted in his proposal, the plan is to decriminalize the trade, taking away the need for a black market and theoretically generating enough revenue to pay for elephant conservation.

It sounds simple, but according to a study published in Sept. 15th issue of Current Biology, the reality of the situation is complex. With a gestation period of 22 months, elephants grow and reproduce much too slowly to support a commercial trade––no matter how regulated it may be.

“The demand for ivory is simply too great––it outstrips what elephants can produce,” said University of Aberdeen Professor of Behavioural Biology David Lusseau, lead researcher on the study.

The proposal set out by Namibia and Zimbabwe suggests a process called the ‘decision-making mechanism,’ which would involve using ivory from existing piles of seized illegal ivory and natural elephant deaths. However, these sources would still only meet a fraction of current ivory demand. Lusseau and his co-author have created a virtual simulation of a herd of 1,360 elephants using data from Amboseli National Park in Kenya to predict how much ivory can be sustainably harvested. According to their data, the sustainable model would allow at most 100 to 150 kg of ivory annually––and that’s assuming a perfect living environment with a steady market and without the threat of poaching.

That’s the ivory equivalent of one large male elephant. Not nearly enough to quench the demand in East Asian countries, such as China and Vietnam, where nearly 600 kilograms are sold annually.

“We cannot brush aside the fact that poaching has reached industrial scale,” the study states. “We must urgently work on finding ways to change consumer behavior as the only avenue by which we can resolve the ivory trade tragedy.”

In the end, the focus must be on reducing demand more than anything else. Legalizing the trade won’t help—so maybe for now, it’s best to keep tying those knots on social media.

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