Should the ivory trade be legalized?

Ivory has been widely used in a variety of decorative and practical uses by for thousands of years. Some ivory producing animals, i.e. elephants, have been hunted almost to extinction because of the demand for their tusks. The global trade in ivory is illegal though you can still buy ivory products in some countries. When trade is made illegal, often the price of the goods increases which creates stronger incentives for illegal trade and poaching. Some argue that a legalization of the international ivory trade would increase the incentive to raise elephants to feed the market thereby increasing the overall number of elephants.

There are economic debates about whether this approach would even work but this debate raises some interesting ethical and moral debates. Let’s assume for a minute that legalizing the trade in ivory would result in less poaching and more available animals since people would have an economic incentive to breed, raise and take care of these animals. In this case, is it still ethical to allow the ivory trade?

This question pits the consequentialist way of thinking against a deontological approach. Is the favorable outcome of more animals worth the cost of commodifying endangered species’ lives? Or is the moral principle that we should protect these animals at all costs outweigh the potential benefit of legalizing the market?

The question cane be broadened to include Rhino horns which have monetary value because some people believe the horns have a variety of medicinal uses.

Below are some articles to help you think through the debate.

Legal market will curb poaching

“However, the ban caused a vertical split in CITES, with one side demanding that the trade be declared legal and the other saying that legalising would be fatal for African elephants, which are the source of most of the illegally traded ivory in the world. The issue is likely to come to a head at the 17th Conference of Parties of CITES to be held at Johannesburg, South Africa, from September 24 to October 5. CITES is under pressure to devise innovative methods to allow ivory trade while ensuring elephant conservation.”–53564

Debate: Would a legal ivory trade save elephants or speed up the massacre?

“Whether or not legal sales of otherwise illegal products will undercut harmful black markets is a classic question in economics. It seems to have worked when the US repealed the prohibition of alcohol and legal booze flooded markets previously dominated by bootleggers. It’s less clear whether it is working in places that have experimented with legalising marijuana or prostitution. Will it work for ivory? This question pits two sets of economic theories against each other.”

Legalizing ivory trade won’t save elephants, study concludes

“Is killing elephants—legally—the best way to save them? The controversial idea will get a hearing next week at a major conservation meeting in South Africa, where elephant-rich African nations will renew a push to scrap a long-standing global ban on ivory sales and replace it with a limited legal trade in tusks taken from carefully managed elephant populations. A legal market, they argue, will undermine the poaching that is depleting herds and provide a financial incentive for protecting them.”

Why Does a Rhino Horn Cost $300,000? Because Vietnam Thinks It Cures Cancer and Hangovers

“The weird thing is that the surge in Vietnamese demand is fairly recent. Though rhino horn elixirs for fevers and liver problems were first prescribed in traditional Chinese medicine more than 1,800 years ago, by the early 1990s demand was limited. Trade bans among Asian countries instituted in the 1980s and early 1990s proved largely effective in quashing supply, with some help from poaching crackdowns in countries where rhinos live. Meanwhile, the removal of rhino horn powder from traditional Chinese pharmacopeia in the 1990s had largely doused demand. In the early 1990s, for instance, horns sold for only $250-500/kg (pdf, p.85). And only around 15 rhinos were poached in South Africa each year from 1990 to 2007.”

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