Illegal Ivory Trade

Crime and Punishment — Finding a Balance


All of us take risk and reward into account in our daily decision making.  Legislators, judges, administrators, churches, communities — all elements of a given society contribute to a risk-reward structure that guides social and economic behavior.  Those who step outside the boundaries of “acceptable behavior” risk some manner of punishment, generally deemed to be severe enough to discourage that behavior.  Always there are those who ignore the rules, driven by motivations outside the norm.  Finding the right balance between the crime and the punishment is an ongoing pursuit in all societies.

Kenya is considering stiffer penalties for poaching (click here), a step many feel is way overdue.  Currently, Kenya’s wildlife act caps punishment for the most serious wildlife crimes at a maximum fine of 40,000 Kenyan shillings (about $470) and a possible jail term of up to 10 years.  Recently, several Chinese nationals caught in possession of $24,000 and $10,000 worth of illegal ivory were fined $340 and $439 respectively and released without serving any jail time. Not much of a disincentive in practice I’d say.  By contrast, a US lobster fisherman caught with one lobster with claws that were 1/4 inch below the legal minimum size for harvesting lost his boat for eight months (his livelihood) and was fined $1200. Given the differences in our economies, one might argue the Kenyan penalties are as strict, if not stricter.  After all, their laws were crafted for a society in which many who poached lived on less than a dollar a day.

Today’s poaching problem however is not driven by people living at a subsistence level.  The illegal ivory trade is driven by highly sophisticated, international organized crime rings whose “soldiers” on the ground in Africa have no fear of the current laws.  Those caught with the ivory are rarely the individuals who killed the elephants.  There is no easy formula to find the right balance, and it will take more than effective capture and prosecution to diminish the rate of slaughter.  But we need pressure on all points in the system.  We should keep our eye on Kenya to see what that important country is willing to do in terms of passing and enforcing new laws with real teeth — or should we say tusks?