by Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies*
One of the major announcements by President Obama during his brief but highly symbolic visit to Kenya this weekend was that he would implement “urgently needed steps” to restrict the sale of ivory from African elephants. He used his high-profile trip to jump once more on the ivory ban bandwagon with a measure that will get headlines, the keen approbation of Western animal welfare and conservation NGOs, but have little real effect and, like many of the well-intention but ill-conceived and patronising policies pushed on African elephant range state by the West and its NGOs, have practically no effect on the conservation of elephants and combating of the scourge of poaching.
Obama’s lofty aim of eliminating the illegal market for ivory in America is based on restricting the domestic commercial trade, still legal in many states and legal for antique or pre-ban ivory or trophy ivory brought back by American hunters, and stopping inter-state trade in most forms of ivory. But this is a very small proportion of the global trade and where it involves illegal, smuggled ivory it just targets what is already illegal and so is nothing startlingly new. It is also worth noting that the extra restrictions on the legal trade may well be struck down by a Republican congress viscerally opposed to almost anything Obama proposes – but it is the effect of the headline announcement rather than the final effect that often really matters in the ivory PR struggle.
But whatever the chances of becoming law or the localised effects on the ivory trade, this represents another example of Western paternalism towards the issues of ivory trading, poaching and conservation in Africa. This paternalism developed under colonialism when British game department officials declared all Africans to be potential poachers and hunting by Kenyan communities was banned, but trophy and commercial hunting by whites was encouraged. The conservation movement developed a new form of environmental colonialism with communities moved from land to make way for national parks and reserves. The very game wardens who launched militarised anti-poaching campaigns against African communities banned from traditional hunting for subsistence themselves benefited materially from the system as they could buy elephant hunting licences and then sell the ivory at a profit. Some, like the venerable George Adamson, David Sheldrick and Bill Woodley, were avid elephant hunters when it suited their pockets – yet they fiercely pursued hunters among traditional hunting communities like the Waliangulu and Dorobo.