Ivory from a poached elephant sells on the black market for about $21,000. A living elephant, on the other hand, is worth more than $1.6 million in ecotourism opportunities. That's the conclusion of a new report from the The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

The report—“Dead or Alive? Valuing an Elephant" (pdf)—follows on the heels of similar reports that found that heavily poached species such as manta rays and sharks bring in significantly greater amounts of money from tourism and related activities than they ever do from poaching and illegal trade.

This new report is based on data collected during the first eight months of this year, when 43 large shipments of illegally trafficked ivory were seized worldwide. Those shipments contained 17.8 metric tons of ivory from an estimated 1,940 elephants. (Although a staggering number, it probably represents about 10 percent of the elephants killed in Africa so far this year; only a small portion of smuggled ivory is intercepted and recovered.) The total black market value of those tusks was estimated at more than $37 million.

For comparison, the report’s authors also looked at ecotourism camps, safaris and photography tours in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa. The organization estimates this elephant tourism contributes just short of $23,000 per elephant per year to the local economy—a total of more than $1.6 million over an elephant's lifetime. By their accounts—and they don't quite break down all of the numbers—this means that the seized ivory from 1,940 elephants was actually worth $44.5 million in lost ecotourism revenue if the elephants had remained alive.

The report’s authors acknowledged that their study is an unconventional way to look at the problem. As Rob Brandford, director of the Sheldrick Trust's iWorry ivory awareness campaign, wrote, "Referring to wild animals as 'economic commodities' has created controversy in the past but where policy is determined by the value of an object, it's time to give the elephant a fair footing." He added, "Protecting elephants makes economic sense, whether you're responsible for a reserve in Tanzania or a national park in Kenya—if elephants live, tourists will come and economies can be boosted."

Of course not every elephant lives in an area where ecotourism is accessible or even advisable. (Not many people want to go to war-torn Cameroon on vacation, for example.) Meanwhile, human–elephant conflict remains a problem in many parts of Africa as the populations of both species clash for space and resources. And let's not forget: elephant tourism is actually a little scary. It's one thing to look at an elephant through a telephoto lens; it's another to have a 7,000-kilogram animal charge your Land Rover.

Still, just because this isn't appropriate for every elephant left in Africa doesn't mean the economic valuation lacks merit. With some conservationists warning that Africa's elephants could be poached into extinction in just two decades, this is definitely an idea worthy of further discussion, and one that may just lend itself to incentivizing elephant protection.

Photo: Matt Biddulph via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license