Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa

Something slightly different today – a book review. But I’ve not reviewed a book since…well, I can’t remember… So let’s start with a quote to get us going:

“The elephant is the most harassed of all African mammals…Its reduction in numbers is still progressing, and special measures may become necessary in order to save it from extinction”

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not a recent observation from an NGO, government body, or conservationist. It comes from Major Hingston of the Fauna Preservation Society (a British NGO), writing in the 1930s. Evidently, the poaching threat facing Africa’s elephants, and recognition of their uncertain future, is far from new.

Keith Somerville’s Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa tracks the ebb and flow of ivory trading across Africa over the centuries, reflecting on ivory’s relationship with foreign traders, colonial administrations and modern-day insurgencies. We read of elephant herds being wiped out in various regions, of the “exploits” of big-game hunters, of the early movements towards regulation of hunting, and of the tensions between local communities and the elephants themselves.  It’s sobering to see many hundreds of years and tens of thousands of poached elephants reduced to numbers on a page – often accompanied by the price (not value, I should emphasise) of their ivory. From the Congo Basin’s forest elephants to the last of the Saharan herds; from Kenya to South Africa; from Gabon to Mozambique, Somerville masters complexity with a clear, well-researched and fluid narrative.

Ivory burning
A Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) officer stands near a burning pile of 15 tonnes of elephant ivory seized in Nairobi National Park.  A number of African governments have taken to burning tusks as a show of defiance against poaching. Critics say this is little more than a publicity stunt and that efforts to stop poaching still fall short.  Photo Credit: The Daily Telegraph

He argues strongly in favour of bringing local communities on-board in conservation efforts throughout this book (something we’re seeing work well in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, among others). He is critical of colonial regimes and modern western NGOs for imposing their visions of appropriate wildlife management on African states, and for distancing local people both physically and emotionally from their immediate natural environment.  As long as they lack the support of local communities, conservation efforts will be fundamentally hamstrung.  Farmers and pastoralists are far more likely to kill elephants which trample crops or break fences if they see no value in the elephant.  At the same time, they are less likely to inform the authorities of poaching, and more likely to facilitate or participate in that poaching for financial gain. Yet to place the blame for the shocking declines in elephant numbers in recent decades on the farmer who shoots or poisons an elephant which destroys or threatens his/her livelihood, is very misleading.

“Corruption, political power and wealth accumulation and utilisation are at the heart of the ivory trade, but it also feeds off impoverishment of communities, resentment over alienation from control of wildlife sources, and conflict leading to availability of weapons and opportunities to poach with impunity, whether by local people, criminal gangs, militias, rebel groups, and national armies – or a combination of them all”

Keith Somerville, “Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa”, p.317

By a similar token, Somerville argues that the narrative of “ivory-insurgency-terrorism”, which has sprung up and gained much momentum in recent years, is overly simplistic, perhaps close to baseless.  To stress how Boko Haram, Al Shabaab or other insurgencies have used illicit ivory trading to fund their operations overlooks far more significant revenue streams available to these groups. They may dabble in ivory trading opportunistically, but, writes Somerville, it is not central to their financing.

Al Shabaab.jpg
Members of Somalia’s Al Shabaab militia. Somerville sets out to debunk what he considers a convenient “ivory-insurgency-terrorism” narrative, which does not fit with reality on the ground. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

So who – or what – is to blame? Well, corruption and conflict certainly play key roles in facilitating and increasing poaching.  Somerville stresses that whenever there has been little threat of punitive action due to poor law enforcement, corruption or civil war, then officials, poachers, traders and smugglers have been able to act with impunity, and hundreds of thousands of elephants have been slaughtered as a result.  It comes as no surprise that the most politically stable African states with the lowest levels of corruption – Botswana, for instance – have the fewest problems with poaching and have been most successful in sustaining elephant populations.

Somerville’s account is replete with instances of well-connected individuals within the political, military and even “conservation” elites being actively involved in poaching and ivory smuggling in their respective countries. There has even been evidence of military helicopters and heavy weaponry being used to kill elephants in large numbers. Whistle-blowers have often been ‘silenced’, so to speak, or otherwise removed from the spotlight.

There is some indication that African states have begun to tackle the corruption which has been so endemic in the post-colonial period. Ceremonial burnings of seized ivory or national stockpiles are now used by a number of African governments as a show of resolve against poaching. However, unless these public displays are backed up by significant anti-poaching and, just as important, anti-corruption measures, their real impact is understandably limited.

“Levels of elephant poaching and illegal ivory trading in a country are more likely to be related to wildlife management practices, law enforcement and corruption than to choice of CITES appendix listings and consequent extent of trade restriction.”

Zoological Society of London, ‘International Wildlife Trafficking: Solutions to a Global Crisis’, Symposium, February 2014

The everyday reality of corruption, crime and politics enables illegal poaching to survive in spite of international pressure for a more extensive ban on the trade – in addition, that is, to the CITES ban of 1989.  But following Somerville’s logic in his conclusion takes us to a slightly disconcerting conclusion: if “a free-for-all for illegal raw ivory [as a result of a complete trade ban under CITES]” is not the answer, then some degree of regulated trade must be. What Somerville terms “locally acceptable forms of sustainable use” necessarily entail management of elephant populations. Some reviewers have suggested that this leaves the door open to a legal, regulated trade in ivory as a logical extension of Somerville’s argument.  Sustainable management of elephant populations doesn’t necessarily mean legal (or illegal) ivory trading, but that’s based on zero demand for new ivory. Realistically, that’s not going to happen for some time, if indeed ever.

For some, this conclusion might be uncomfortable, but Somerville’s knowledge of the ivory trade past and present is close to unparalleled (this book is certainly one of the most comprehensive studies of pan-African ivory trading to date), and we would do well to heed to his words. His research for this book began in the early 1980s, and over the past 35 years he has travelled extensively throughout sub-Saharan Africa, interviewing men and women on the front line of elephant conservation efforts. Their views evidently inform his analysis as much as his own.  According to Somerville, it’s wrong to assume that all conservationists – many of the people who devote their lives to protecting elephants – are in favour of a blanket ivory ban.

Elephants Fence Breaking.jpg
Fence-breaking and crop-destruction are two of the most common instances of conflict between local farmers/pastoralists and elephants. As you can see, even the sturdiest of fences cannot stop a herd of elephants if they are determined to move through the obstacle.  Photo Credit: Justconservation.org / Hitchcock et al. (2015), Elephant Engagements and Indigenous Peoples: Borders, Boundaries and Barriers in Southern Africa

The inescapable truth is this: Africa’s human population is growing faster than that of any other continent, and is forecast to eclipse 2.4 billion by 2050.  This will, beyond any shadow of doubt, intensify the scope and scale of Africa’s human-wildlife conflict in years to come. If sustainable solutions on a local level can be developed as a means of conserving elephant populations – even if, and it pains me to write this, a legal trade in ivory results – surely that is preferable to local, regional, or continental extinction of the species?  Not ideal by any means; but preferable.  What we cannot lose sight of is Somerville’s focus on getting local communities onside in conservation efforts. It is so crucial in giving us the best possible chance of preserving Africa’s majestic giants for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.


The Chinese government has recently announced that 67 of its licensed ivory facilities are being shut down, including 12 of its 35 ivory carving factories and several dozen of its more than 130 ivory retailers. According to the Chinese State Forestry Administration, which oversees wildlife trade issues, the other facilities will be closed before the end of the year. This is being hailed as a massive step forward in tackling ivory supply & demand in the Far East. Although Somerville’s book doesn’t go into Far Eastern demand in great detail, he does acknowledge that the twin pressures of rising demand and the sort of corruption/conflict on the ground in African range states are two sides of the same coin. It’s pretty simple, really – break the demand for ivory, and you go a long way to reducing the poaching of elephants.  But it’s still a long road ahead to bring the illegal ivory trade under control. And there’s likely to be further ups and downs on the way.

Ivory carvin
China’s 3,000 year old ivory carving industry is finally being reined in by Beijing, with the announcement in March 2017 that 67 licensed ivory facilities are being shut down. China remains one of the largest sources of demand for African ivory. Photo Credit: National Geographic/How Hwee Young (EPA)


If you want to buy Somerville’s Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa for yourself, a quick google will take you to a number of online bookstores, or, if you’d prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, just head into your local bookshop!

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s