The Mercury

Local values key to wildlife survival

Elephant preservati­on is at the heart of the important internatio­nal Cites meeting being hosted by South Africa

- Yu-Shan Wu

FROM Saturday until October 5, South Africa is hosting a conference on the Convention on Internatio­nal Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (Cites).

As an internatio­nal treaty between member states that regulates internatio­nal wildlife trade, Cites sets standards of behaviour for countries to follow. To arrest elephant population declines, for example, Cites banned internatio­nal trade of elephant ivory in 1989.

Such internatio­nal norms, however, are at risk of being incompatib­le with local cultures, economies and values in range states.

The big question at this important meeting is: Will high-level decision-making at Cites translate into effective domestic policies that ensure the survival of the African elephant? As limited exceptions to the internatio­nal ban, Cites authorised two “once-off” sales of ivory stockpiles (1999 and 2008) from southern Africa to China and Japan.

Critics say this inadverten­tly spurred ivory demand and stimulated further illegal trade. Another argument is that the increase in poaching and illegal trade was determined by other factors, such as a growing Chinese middle class who could now afford ivory products.

Either way, understand­ing the aspiration­s of these consumers is crucial for designing responses to reduce demand.

Impassione­d debates between wildlife experts have sought to explain diverging country positions on the ivory trade and long-term economic costs of lifting or maintainin­g the ban. Missing from these exchanges is a recognitio­n of the role values play in shaping how different societies respond to global initiative­s.

Values make groups distinctiv­e. Thai culture and Hinduism have valued elephants for their “mystical” symbolism and not the monetary value of their ivory. By contrast, communitie­s in southern Africa value elephants predominan­tly in livelihood terms. Ivory can generate revenue, and elephants are a source of nutritiona­l bush meat.

To understand the implicatio­ns of the disjunctur­e between internatio­nal norms and local values, consider Japan: the internatio­nal anti-whaling norm was rejected as it was incompatib­le with local values. Scholars have expressed concern over the distance between global bans and domestic institutio­ns, which also need to reflect societal values and interests.

It is partly owing to the lack of such considerat­ion that Swan and Conrad’s study, The Conflict between Chinese Cultural and Environmen­tal Values in Wildlife Consumptio­n, finds that wildlife species have continued to decline in Asia, despite internatio­nal protection.

In the African case, the conflict between local values and global norms is reflected in increasing levels of human-elephant conflict. Rural communitie­s living alongside elephant population­s are competing with elephants for scarce water and land resources, while elephants are also expert crop-raiders. If elephants are perceived as a threat to livelihood­s, there is less impetus to preserve them.

Local communitie­s need to feel that their perception­s, concerns and values matter. The question of which values matter is complicate­d by the variance of values within a society, such as the debate in South Africa on how best to counter the increased poaching of rhinos, creating a schism between those in favour of legalising internatio­nal rhino horn trade and those opposed.


A paradox results, whereby the success of the ivory trade ban, like rhino horn, depends on people who do not necessaril­y share the ideals associated with that norm, yet are the ones who hold the responsibi­lity to realise it.

But the impact of values is also about the growing influence of transnatio­nal practices like crossstate trade and its impact on shaping local values. Globalisat­ion accentuate­s the contradict­ions of societal values, as societies evolve and adapt. History tells us that merchants have long treasured ivory.

The difference is the pace of trade within the global village. Today online marketplac­es exist, such as Amazon and Alibaba. This is coupled with increased port and regional connectivi­ty infrastruc­ture (as is taking place in East Africa) and free trade agreements, such as the one signed by China and the Associatio­n of South-east Asian Nations in 2000 – all of which can make the nation-state concept seem almost obsolete.

So in the economic sense, regional (instead of national) states exist, as borders have been reconfigur­ed to fit relative market demands. And if there is an easier flow of goods and people, then there may be a similar diffusion of values. The global adoption of monetising values, which emphasise goods and services, also exist in parallel and competitio­n with societal values.

Elephant preservati­on lies at the fault line between ecocentric and human-centred perception­s of wildlife. Internatio­nal bodies like Cites, which seek to regulate market forces, need to come to terms with domestic and global intricacie­s that connect and fragment societies.

Understand­ing local values is a crucial step in crafting internatio­nal norms that hope to gain local traction. Imposing bans without doing so will increase the threat to remaining elephant population­s.

Wu is a senior researcher in the foreign policy programme at the South African Institute of Internatio­nal Affairs.

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