Journal of African History March 2018


Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa.
By Keith Somerville.
London: Hurst & Company, 2016. Pp. xx + 390. $29.95, hardback (ISBN 9781849046763).
Key Words: East Africa, Kenya, ivory, wildlife (elephants), hunting, international relations.
With Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa, Keith Somerville, formerly a BBC journalist
and now a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, has produced a history of an African commodity. This book is honestly titled: rather than elephants, it is about ivory as a valuable and controversial resource in a continent that is short on wealth but that has a history of shifting political power.
Early chapters of the book track the theme of ivory within a broad recounting of the
ancient, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean worlds. Somerville’s analysis of European empire
confirms what others have already established: that local hunting practices were outlawed as ‘poaching’ (a term he uses warily). Europeans hunted elephants too, but Africans who hunted were defined as criminal. It is chilling to read that the militarization of antipoaching accelerated during Mau Mau when authorities in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park borrowed from anti-insurgency practices.

Somerville enhances our understanding of wildlife management by explaining colonial and postcolonial governments as ‘gatekeeper states’ that arrogated management of ivory to themselves. After the ‘changing of the guard’ at independence, political elites took profits from the ivory under state control and corruption oiled the trade. For everyone else, colonial hunting restrictions remained in place even as poverty created reasons to defy the law. Political disorder made it possible for hunting to go undetected, or to launder tusks among the legally sanctioned quotas, or to smuggle ivory across borders. Many forces – legal ivory markets, illegal ivory markets, hunger for meat, or the policy of mitigating the environmental impact of elephants through culling – make this a story of killing. The demographic impact was considerable: the number of elephants in Africa in the early s was estimated at – million, but by the end of the decade, it had dropped to between . and . million. The difference between the estimates of . and . million suggests why disagreements about elephants were so fierce. Beginning in the s, international conservationists became key players in setting elephant policy. But the ‘prima bwanas’ of the elephant world fought bitterly over what was more appropriate: abolition of all trade or a program of sustainable harvesting. Somerville shows that political grandstanding, media sensationalism, and personal animosity created ‘a hardening of the ivory-elephant conservation arteries’ ().

The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) imposed an international ban on nearly all ivory trading in . In the process, African states lost control over policy. Southern African countries remained adamantly opposed and sought exemptions. The minor concessions granted to them underscore how little power they exercised. Skeptics of the ban were justified: international parties did not fulfill their promises to make up for lost revenue from ivory sales by supporting community-based conservation.  Moreover, the ban had holes: it was still legal to trade carved ivory, some one-off sales of stockpiles were allowed, and sometimes it was allowable to sell meat and hides. After , new connections to an increasingly wealthy China expanded demand and smuggling  again increased. Between  and  an estimated , elephants were killed for ivory. By , the estimated size of the wild population dropped to ,–,. Since then, things have not changed in favor of the elephants.
Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa makes clear that this continental trend is an aggregate of dozens of national trajectories. They are recounted in detail in Chapter Seven, a -page long survey of ivory trading and elephant fortunes since . These summaries, grounded in expert and detailed discussions of political history, will serve as an authoritative reference on the subject through . Because the analysis is based on matters of government, security, and development, this chapter will also serve readers with wider political and policy interests. For example, conflict in Sudan has threatened elephants in neighboring countries. Despite struggles, Kenya has had some success. Botswana has exceptionally low rates of poaching. Intra-human wars have been hard on elephants, but for Somerville, the unworkability of the ban precedes recent conflict as the cause for elephant decline. The survival of elephants, he holds, requires a regulated legal trade.
Somerville attends scrupulously to numerical evidence: dates, size of the elephant population, numbers of animals killed, pounds of ivory traded, and their value. This sometimes comes across as lists of facts. That is unfortunate, because the data are essential to the argument. Well-designed graphics could capitalize on this wealth of information by synthesizing it in new ways. I urge the author and publisher to develop a companion website with infographics on elephants, populations, and ivory sales in time and across space.
Brown University