What’s Behind Malawi’s Decision Not to Burn Its Ivory Stockpile?

By Michael Schwartz

Malawi president Peter Mutharika recently decided to postpone the burning of roughly four tons of stockpiled ivory, worth around seven million dollars. He claimed that at least 2.6 more tons are still being held as evidence in the upcoming trials of suspected elephant poachers.

While his initial decision to destroy the ivory is being lauded by some Malawians, others question whether a burn is the best possible recourse. Some see confiscated ivory as disposable remnants of barbarism that only carry intrinsic value when attached to their owners. Others see it as revenue to help the country’s poor or to augment conservation.

This also broaches the larger debate as to whether or not destroying contraband stockpiles really helps elephants in the long run.

Most remember the 1980s as a particularly bad decade for elephants. The Ivory Trade Review Group discovered a record population decline–numbers falling from 1.3 million in 1979 to somewhere around 600,000 by 1989. Poaching of course was a major contributing factor.

What many people don’t know is that the poaching was primarily happening in East Africa at the time, whereas Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe still had fairly healthy populations, which were growing prior to the international ivory trade ban in 1989. Subsequently, Southern African countries relied on ivory revenue from culls and natural elephant mortality to bolster their own conservation efforts.

It was those same states who publicly expressed frustration when CITES issued the 1989 ban on ivory sales, which paved the way for Appendix I and Appendix II split listing of the species. That same year, director of the Kenya Wildlife Conservation Department Richard Leakey spearheaded the torching of 12 tons of stockpiled ivory with approval and assistance from then president Daniel arap Moi.

Despite negative ramifications from the one-off sales approved by CITES in 1999 and 2008—mostly owing —> Read More