15 December 2017
Scientists propose a process to protect endangered African elephants that takes into account conflicts over values.

Threatened African elephants could be better protected using approaches developed during the ending of apartheid, conflict resolution in Colombia and international climate change negotiations, according to scientists.

A group of leading scientists from around the world, including Lancaster, have outlined a policy process that they believe could break the current deadlock in negotiations on ivory and help protect our largest land mammals.

Poaching for ivory has caused a steep decline in numbers of African elephants over the last decade.

While there is broad agreement about the need to protect endangered species from illegal wildlife trade, there is still little consensus over what mix of policies will be successful. A number of different, conflicting ideas of how to deal with elephant poaching have emerged – including calls for all out bans on ivory sales, to arguments for regulated trade to fund, and promote, conservation work.

The scientists believe that conflicting positions on how to resolve the trade in ivory is emblematic of the impasses that have characterised international decision-making around trade in other iconic animals, such as rhinos, sea turtles and tigers.

In a paper ‘Breaking the deadlock on ivory’ published in Science, the authors highlight that contentious debates over how to best protect elephants are rarely based on disagreements around the scientific data itself, but rather disagreements around values.

They suggest a five-piece process to help evaluate scientific data in the context of value conflicts, to overcome the impasse on ivory. This includes identification of common goals, more clear articulation of what points negotiating stakeholders agree and disagree over, development of joint programmes to evaluate the scientific evidence on what works in elephant conservation, and a common agreement on how this data should inform decision.  

The scientists also propose that for this process to work most effectively it should be initiated and spearheaded by the African range states that have elephant populations.

Dr Jacob Phelps, Lecturer at the Lancaster Environment Centre, said: “It’s often not disagreements over science, but around values, which are the heart of many conservation conflicts. As in other conflict scenarios where stakeholders struggle to see eye-to-eye, we need new processes to help transparently evaluate options, negotiate trade-offs and make decisions that achieve common goals – including saving iconic animals such as African elephants.”

Access the paper here. The paper’s authors include: Duan Biggs, Griffith University; Matthew Holden, Alex Braczkowski, James Allan, Eve Macdonald-Madden, Martine Maron, University of Queensland; Carly Cook, Monash University; E. J. Milner-Gulland, Oxford University; Jacob Phelps, Lancaster University; Robert Scholes, University of Witwatersrand; Robert Smith and Henry Brink, University of Kent; Fiona Underwood, independent; Vanessa Adams, Macquarie University; Rosie Cooney, IUCN SULi; Yufang Gao, Yale University; Jon Hutton, Luc Hoffmann Institute; Kent Redford, Archipelago Consulting; William Sutherland, University of Cambridge; Hugh Possingham, The Nature Conservancy.