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Tigra Scientifica: Should only elephants wear ivory?

Take a step into the first floor atrium of Clemson’s Brackett Hall, and you’ll look up and see a visual display showcasing millions of years of evolution.
One wall holds metal sculptures of animals — from dolphins to owls — that ascend across the display’s entirety. Even the hyrax, a small rodent-like mammal, makes an appearance, though one of its closest relatives, the elephant, is nowhere to be found.
In a November 2016 article published in Current Biology, biologists David Lusseau and Phyllis C. Lee of the United Kingdom argue that legalizing a limited trade of ivory could make the elephant’s presence extinct on Earth.
The study comes after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a treaty between 183 governments that polices wildlife trade, began talks of a limited-ivory trade.
In the early 20th century, Africa was home to over 10 million elephants. Primarily due to poaching for ivory, which is used in jewelry-making and art, this elephant population had declined tenfold by the 1980s. Consequently, an international ban on ivory was instated by CITES in 1989.
Although some populations have recovered since then, African elephant numbers are still plummeting, down to the present-day estimate of 352,000.
Elephant-rich countries argue a limited legal trade — in which ivory is taken only from elephants that are killed because they’re unruly, or those that have died naturally — will threaten the black market for ivory and provide financial incentive to conserve elephants.
Lusseau and Lee claim otherwise. The two biologists created a model that assessed the ivory yield of a virtual herd of 1360 elephants under various circumstances. In an environment without poaching, the virtual herd could sustainably produce between 100-150 kg of ivory annually, falling significantly short of the estimated 600 kg necessary to satisfy consumer demand.
Furthermore, an environment without poaching isn’t realistic in the modern era, where approximately 210 tons of ivory are poached each year.  
“The demand for ivory is simply too great; it outstrips what elephants can produce,” says Lusseau.     
Lusseau speculates that since males of a herd produce the most ivory, they would be the first to go extinct, thus triggering the harvest of multiple small elephants to equal the ivory production of one male.
Critics say the virtual elephant herd is too small to be a realistic analysis of ivory yield, and that the elephants don’t have to be killed to harvest their ivory, and even that Lusseau and Lee’s estimates of consumer demand are too high.
As of the October 2016 triennial meeting of CITES, the consensus just wasn’t clear; some nations voted to instate a limited trade, while others voted to uphold the global ban.
For the time being, proposals of a limited legal trade of ivory will loom until the next CITES meeting in 2019.

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