The Tragedy of the Elephants

43 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2017 Last revised: 20 Nov 2017

See all articles by Branden Jung

Branden Jung

University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Date Written: November 1, 2017


According to popular legend, mass elephant burial sites riddle Africa. As the myth goes, dying elephants instinctively gravitate to elephant graveyards to die. Unfortunately, the romanticized legend has become a dark, anthropogenic reality. Each year poachers litter the plains of sub-Saharan Africa with thousands of bloody elephant carcasses. Entire herds of elephants are routinely and wantonly slaughtered. The genocide is a tragedy: a tragedy of the commons.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) attempts to protect African elephants by banning nearly all international trade in ivory. Despite decades of this strict regulatory approach, the African elephant persists as an open-access resource and the species is at risk of localized extinction. Ivory poachers senselessly kill thousands of African elephants each year because of an economic phenomenon known as the tragedy of the commons. This Article argues that CITES fails to resolve the elephant's commons dilemma because the law suffers from cultural and economic incompetence. CITES has clung to Western perspectives of the elephant even though the primary consuming and producing states of ivory are in Africa and East Asia. The West sees the very consumption of ivory as archaic and inhumane. However, many in Africa and East Asia see those values as alien and imperialistic. These peoples have few incentives to follow centralized conservation policies embedded with cultural imperialism.

CITES needs a radical new approach to save the African elephant. This Article argues that CITES should lift the international ban on the ivory trade and promote community and private property rights in African elephants to ensure the species' survival. This approach could simultaneously save the African elephant and satisfy the needs and desires of local peoples. This Article argues that this approach is ethically justifiable from rights and utilitarian based systems of animal ethics.

Keywords: ivory trade, CITES, international law, economics, animal welfare, wildlife policy

JEL Classification: Q

Suggested Citation

Jung, Branden, The Tragedy of the Elephants (November 1, 2017). Wisconsin Law Review, Vol. 2017, No. 4, 2017. Available at SSRN:

Branden Jung (Contact Author)

University of Nevada, Las Vegas ( email )

4505 S. Maryland Parkway
Las Vegas, NV 89154
United States

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