At the policy level, the conflict remains one of whether a strict international ban on the trade in tusks will succeed, or whether a regulated trade will work instead. The skepticism about the international ban approach (which dates back to the 1989 CITE meeting) stems from several factors. These include the failure of the ban and accompanying education campaigns to reduce demand in foreign markets (which are to be honest, not exclusively Asian).
To move the debate on a bit, I'd like to reproduce an argument Michael Eustace made in a letter to the Business Day
DEAR SIR, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned trade in ivory in 1989 but that has not stopped elephant poaching. There are many different estimates as to how many elephant are poached each year but 20,000 would seem a reasonable assumption. Most of the ivory of about 200 tons is sold to Chinese buyers with criminals making all the profit. The wildlife donor agencies persist in promoting increased law enforcement and changing the Chinese mindset as being the solution but neither is working as is evidenced by the ongoing poaching. Law enforcement in a corrupt society is ineffective and changing the Chinese mindset has been tried over many years and proved futile. China wants ivory and Africa has ivory. Both would prefer a legal trade rather than a criminal trade. Africa can sell the ivory that is gathered from natural deaths to China so as to satisfy some of the demand. There are about 500,000 elephant in Africa and some 10,000 die each year of natural causes. They leave 100 tons of ivory. That ivory could be sold by a broker, with a monopoly over all legal supplies of ivory, to a Chinese cartel of ivory carvers who could then sell to licensed retailers. That would establish a clear legal pipeline and China, as part of the deal, could undertake to close down the illegal trade and also confiscate stocks from speculators. With the price of ivory having risen strongly in recent years, speculation is likely to have been a significant part of overall demand. Some poaching will continue but it will be a lot less and a legal trade will save the lives of at least 10,000 elephants every year. In addition there would be $100 million in profits each year for Africa’s parks rather than international criminals.
This neatly encapsulates some of the frustration some conservationists have with the ban. It is the bans failure that motivates the rethink of the strategy. The basic weakness as I see it, is the ban was implemented to frustrate the illegal market of the 1980s. Expecting it to still work in the 2000s depends on the black-market not having changed- that the criminal conspiracies have not worked out means to circumvent it. The problem is the black market has changed. It is no longer hidden within the legal market. It operates with independent smuggling and sale into an underground market (at least, within China the unregistered factories and shops serve this function).
There is also a lot of elephants in Southern and Eastern Africa. That's where the 500,000 mentioned above comes from.
Source: www.grida.no; Author: Riccardo Pravettoni, GRID-Arendal
We are in a position where natural deaths could supply a lot of demand in China. To put things into perspective, the one-off sale in 2008 to China of ivory, was an export of 62 tonnes- which they are eeking out by releasing 4-5 tonnes a year. As the letter above notes, we can actually supply a lot more than that, every year.
At the moment, the Chinese legal trade is really, just too small-scale to be impacting on the illegal trade. If we are serious about reducing poaching then this trade will have to increase in volume to crowd out the illegal market.