In the wake of Michael Gove’s announcement that Britain is to tighten its laws on ivory exports, Professor Keith Somerville questions the value of bans that have no machinery in place to back them up.

The environment sectary, Michael Gove, has announced that the sale of ivory of any age, with very limited exceptions, will be banned in an effort to reduce elephant poaching. Currently antique (pre-1947) ivory can be, and is regularly, exported to China, which has a largely undiminished demand for ivory, despite demand reduction campaigns and a Chinese government moratorium on legal sales.

Ivory trade monitoring groups like TRAFFIC, have long suspected that the legal British antique ivory exports are used to launder ivory poached since the international ban on trading was introduced in January 1990. This was voted in by countries that are members of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and bans trade between member nations except in certain highly specific circumstances, including certain categories of pre-ban or antique ivory.

No date has been set for the presentation of a bill to change the law. A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesperson said it would be done ‘when parliamentary time allows’. Of the 88,000 people who took part in a consultation held by Defra, including online contributions, about 60,000 were in favour of a ban on British ivory exports. Conservation and animal rights groups such as WWF have welcomed the move.

But will it have any effect? The 28-year ban on any legal trade in ivory has failed to stop poaching, which trade-monitoring groups believe is still running at about 20,000 elephants a year. China has strong and continuing demand and the ban on sales and carving has not stopped the illegal import of raw or worked ivory. Countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam now act as conduits for the illegal trade and there is evidence that Chinese carvers are moving to these countries to evade their country’s temporary ban.

Bans do not work if the enforcement machinery is not there to back them up and, as in this case, more effort is put into catching poor African poachers rather than the ivory trade middlemen and their political godfathers in Africa and East Asia.

Enforcement against those who benefit most should be more rigorous, as should be efforts to prevent human-elephant conflict. In addition, incentives need to be put in place for people who have to live alongside elephants that will help conservation efforts and stop them being drawn by poverty and grievance into allowing or engaging in poaching.

Such efforts could involve a tightly regulated trade in non-mortality ivory that would provide income for conservation, anti-poaching and local communities while feeding some of the demand and thereby reducing incentives to poach. It is a tough choice to make, but the bans just aren’t working.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), part of the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London. He is a Member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent where he teaches at the Centre for Journalism, and is editor of the Africa Sustainable Conservation News website.