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A Case for Legal Ivory Trade – ‘Ban all ivory trade, and no more deaths of these intelligent peaceful creatures due to poaching!’


Public opinion has been conditioned by campaigns from organizations more interested in animal rights and welfare than in wildlife conservation to believe that legal ivory trade threatens elephants. The global media have supported this message. Ivory trade bans have, in fact, failed to protect elephants and in reality, threaten them more than legal trade does. Daniel Stiles explains why.

Comments like the one in the sub-title, posted as a response to an article advocating a legal ivory trade, reflect a widely held sentiment in the West. They all make the assumption that elephants have to be illegally, or at least intentionally, killed for there to be trade in ivory. It is a false assumption.

Humans have hunted elephants since time immemorial for their meat, skin and tusks. It is only since prohibitions on these traditional practices appeared that elephants have become threatened. Karl Ammann photo

Another false assumption is that banning the legal ivory trade will stop elephant poaching. If I believed it were that simple, I would be leading the charge to close legal ivory markets. But it’s not that simple. After examining the evidence, I’ve come to the conclusion that a limited legal trade in ivory will help elephants much more than the current prohibitionist regime. Even more important, it can support African rural economies and help lift people out of poverty. It is immoral to waste a valuable natural resource that has the potential to assist poor people.

Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have once again submitted a proposal to CITES to sell registered government-owned raw ivory stocks, excluding seized or unknown origin ivory. Once again, this has raised claims from the anti-sustainable use lobby that sales will lead to increased poaching.

A coalition of US and European groups is encouraging worldwide domestic trade bans on elephant ivory and destruction of national ivory stockpiles as a strategy to save elephants from extinction. Regrettably, this “Stop Ivory” approach reflects a Western viewpoint founded in a biocentric paradigm, in which animals are considered as individuals with intrinsic value that preclude their economic use by humans. The logical conclusion to the paradigm’s application in the wild given the reality of human demographics is extinction of species populations. Its expression has already inflicted questionable policies on African countries, with disastrous long-term consequences for both Africa’s people and wildlife.

The ban-ivory-everywhere policy pursues a top-down, authoritarian approach that aims to protect wildlife through prohibiting trade, increasing law enforcement, and constricting supply by confiscation and ivory stockpile destruction. It recalls the “War on Drugs” – and we have seen how well the War on Drugs has worked. The results have been the rise of brutal criminal gangs, widespread corruption of government officials, and increasing use of illegal drugs. The complete ivory ban strategy relies on the same prohibitionist thinking, with condemning the alternative of regulated use and taxation, accompanied by consumer education to lower demand, a strategy that has shown success in dramatically reducing tobacco use.

This prohibitionist approach is advocated by groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Humane Society of the United States and more recently by the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI), created by Stop Ivory and launched at the 2014 London Conference. They consistently oppose all commercial use of wildlife, regardless of whether such uses are sustainable, and even positive, for habitat and species conservation. IFAW’s president wrote an article headlined, “There’s no such thing as a Sustainable Wildlife Trade.” Now, conservation organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and African Wildlife Foundation have joined forces with the prohibitionists, which critics assert is to compete with animal rights NGOs in attracting donations from the public.

Smoking (in millions of cigarettes sold) in the US from 1900-2010. Smoking peaked in the 1960s, but then government reports linking tobacco to cancer, and other negative publicity, began to force down demand. Cigarette sales have declined further since 2010. Tobacco is still legal largely because of the billions of dollars in tax revenue that it generates.

This coalition mischaracterizes the elephant and ivory trade situation to rally public opinion and high-level political support in Western governments for a policy opposed to what in past years was the holy grail – sustainable development. They claim that previous experiences with legal ivory trade were a disaster for elephants. In that claim, I agree with them. But there has never been a long-term legal, regulated ivory trade in which producers and buyers – supply and demand – were joined together in a cooperative system in which all legitimate stakeholders agree to the rules, which provide benefits to all. There should be a system in which there are incentives for trading legally, and severe disincentives for breaking the rules.

The prohibitionist argument depends on six premises. (Since China is the prime recipient of poached ivory, it determines the future of elephant poaching, and the discourse below applies mainly to China.) The arguments go like this:

  1. Legal ivory trade can be used to “launder” illegal ivory.
  2. Corruption is so widespread that no system of legal trade could ever work.
  3. Legal ivory trade stimulates poaching, as demonstrated by the two “one-off” ivory sales from southern Africa in 1999 and 2008.
  4. The Chinese market is so huge that there are not enough elephants in Africa to supply demand.
  5. Banning all ivory trade will collapse consumer demand.
  6. Destroying all ivory stockpiles sends a message that poaching will not be tolerated. It makes seized illegal ivory impossible to leak into the market and it devalues ivory, lowering consumer demand.

Let’s examine each.

  1. Laundering – The only locations where ivory could be laundered are outlets where legal ivory is sold. A fool proof way to constrain the possibility of laundering is to restrict the number of legal outlets and types of ivory that are legal to sell. This is what China did when it initiated its legal system in 2004. At the peak of China’s legal domestic ivory trade in 2014 there were 37 legal factories and 145 legal ivory outlets in the entire country. A relatively tiny amount of illegal ivory could be mixed in with the legal ivory in these facilities and laundered. It was estimated that over 80 per cent of poached ivory was sold in illegal physical outlets, online and through personal networks in China alone, climbing to over 90 per cent of the total market if countries bordering China were included – no laundering was involved in these because there was no legal ivory to mix it with. Closing the legal outlets and factories in China at the end of 2017 simply drove buyers into the black market system. Now 100 per cent of the market is illegal. Is that a victory for elephants?
  2. Corruption – The corrupt trade seen today developed under an international trade ban regime beginning in the mid-1990s, caused by the 1990 CITES ban. This created the corrupt system we see today. The African countries with the most corrupt ivory trade already have trade bans. So banning trade in more countries is not the solution. The solution involves bringing African governments into a transparent, regulated legal trade that confers benefits on rural people who live with wildlife and legal tax revenues to governments. Poor people are the foot soldiers of poaching. If ivory and other wildlife products could meaningfully contribute to their livelihoods in a legal manner, they would be motivated to manage wildlife for the future. I advocate a system that provides incentives to obey the law, not the prohibitionist approach where the incentives are to break the law.
  3. Legal ivory trade stimulates poaching – The assumption is that legal trade stimulates demand, which in turn causes increased poaching to supply that demand. The 1999 and 2008 legal ivory sales did not stimulate poaching, regardless of what some economists say.

    After China closed its legal ivory domestic market, since 2018 all ivory sold in the country is illegal, much of it sold online. (Screen-grabs from Taobao)

    Demand in Japan, the only country to receive the 1999 ivory, actually dropped after the sales, and it continued to drop after the 2008 sales. Ivory demand in China began to rise in 2005 after the government declared ivory carving an intangible cultural heritage and launched initiatives to promote it. Interest in ivory took off in 2009 during the global financial crisis as ivory became an investment vehicle along with other luxury commodities. Concurrently, the CITES vote in 2007 to prohibit future legal raw ivory sales for at least 9 years caused the price of ivory to spiral upward. Speculators began stockpiling ivory, mostly acquired illegally, expecting the price to continue to rise because of scarcity guaranteed by the moratorium. The black market ivory prices in China then spiked from $560-750 per kilogram in 2006 to $2,100 per kilogram in 2014. This tripling in price contributed to the elephant-poaching crisis. The 2008 legal sale, if anything, kept the price from going even higher. It was not consumer demand for worked ivory that increased, it was speculator demand for raw and antique ivory for investment that spiked, caused by the global financial crisis. The vast majority of Chinese consumers did not even know that CITES ivory sales had occurred in 2008, so how could the sales have stimulated demand?

  4. Most of the Chinese black market is made up of inexpensive jewellery, seals, chopsticks and trinkets. Author’s photo.

  5. Not enough elephants to satisfy demand – One of the biggest misunderstandings is ivory supply and demand. It does not matter how many consumers want to buy ivory, any more than it matters how many people want a Ferrari. What matters is how many who want it can afford to buy the commodity. If one really wants to lower consumer demand, it is imperative that mainly very expensive ivory items are manufactured. Produce mainly Ferrari worked ivory pieces, few Kias allowed.
  6. This policy cannot be implemented with an uncontrolled black market. Researchers have shown that the illegal sector in China provided the cheaper end of the market, which was much larger than the more expensive legal sector up to 2018. And ivory is now supplied 100 per cent by poached tusks, with virtually no new art-quality pieces being manufactured. It is the high demand for cheaper worked ivory (jewellery, signature seals, trinkets), which almost anyone can afford, that causes so much poaching. Closing the legal market did not make the black market disappear, it simply sent more consumers online and stimulated ivory market growth in parts of Southeast Asia where law enforcement is lax.

    To limit raw ivory use to meet available supplies, mainly expensive pieces should be manufactured. This piece was on sale in Shanghai in 2003 for USD 137,000. Today it would sell for twice that. Author’s photo.

    People opposing ivory trade seem to forget that elephants do die naturally. It is wasteful not to use the resource, particularly in economically deprived areas. A recent study concluded that elephant poaching rates are highest in the poorest regions. There are more than enough elephants to supply a legal market from natural mortality without illegally killing a single elephant – if the ivory items are kept expensive. In addition, if elephant user-rights (‘ownership’) are devolved from African governments to local communities, legal ivory income derived from natural mortality and normal problem animal control will fund conservation of wildlife habitats and create the conditions to increase elephant populations. No elephants need to be killed for ivory. Keeping the CITES and domestic trade bans in place will result in humans replacing wildlife, including elephants, as there is no incentive to keep wildlife on the land, except in exceptionally favoured photo-tourism landscapes.

    There is the risk that elephants will be poached to supply ivory to rogue workshops in East Asia to manufacture the small, cheap items. This can be countered in two ways: (1) African workshops can provide these items legally, as they do currently illegally, and (2) there is always carving ‘waste’ from working the expensive pieces; some types of the cheaper items (e.g. beads, pendants) can be made from this waste in China. Supporting African ivory carvers in certain range states under regulated conditions can further provide incentives to communities to grow elephant populations.

    To undercut rogue workshops producing cheap trinkets with poached ivory in Asia, African workshops can produce and export them. They currently do this in the black market, by bringing them into the legal market with legal ivory supply, poaching can be reduced while creating employment. Author’s photo.

  7. Bans reduce demand – Supporters of this assertion often cite the drop in elephant poaching and ivory prices that followed immediately upon the 1989 CITES ivory trade ban –  “The ban caused ivory demand and prices to plummet. Resuming trade now will put elephants at even greater risk.” – EPI. But after the huge stockpiles that Hong Kong and Japan had accumulated prior to the 1989 ban began running low, poaching and prices began rising again. The desired results in Africa, Southeast Asia and China were temporary. A 2007 IFAW consumer survey in China found that of ivory consumers only 7.7 per cent had bought in registered legal outlets, 75.4 per cent said that they preferred to buy ivory more cheaply illegally1. A 2018 USAID-funded consumer survey in China showed that only 44% of those surveyed were aware that there was an ivory trade prohibition. In spite of massive publicity in the West and demand-reduction campaigns in China, 56% of Chinese consumers were still ignorant that ivory was illegal to buy. Experience with Prohibition (alcohol) and the War on Drugs (narcotics) should be enough to persuade any objective person that trade bans do not lower demand. Every time calls are made in the U.S. to further restrict gun sales (usually after a mass shooting), gun sales spike upwards.
  8. Kenya destroyed 105 tonnes of ivory in 2016 at a time when the Kenya Wildlife Service was experiencing severe financial problems. It is irresponsible to waste natural resources in time of need for a questionable ideology. Author’s photo.

  9. Destroying stockpiles – The first ivory destruction event famously took place in Kenya in July, 1989, when 12 tonnes went up in flames to draw attention to the CITES ivory trade ban vote coming up in October in Lausanne. Since then, by my count, there have been 39 more totalling at least 286.6 tonnes destroyed.  There was a gap from 1992 to July, 2011, when in Kenya about 5 tonnes were burned. I was there in 2011, and I was left wondering what message was being sent. Kenya repeated in 2015 with 15 tonnes and in 2016 with a mammoth 105 tonnes. The intended message was not received by poachers and traffickers, however, as since 2011 poaching shot up and through 2018 has been higher than any year earlier, except 2008. If something this destructive does not achieve its intended goal, why persist?
  10. Those advocating for ivory destruction have no skin in the game, they are playing with other peoples’ resources. If they want to destroy ivory, let them pay for it. I believe that the ulterior motive in promoting stockpile destruction is to lower the possibility of a legal trade by reducing potential supply. Those organizations that promote ivory stockpile destruction and assist in organizing it should pay governments market value for the ivory. They would then realize its value. The proceeds could go towards funding community conservation and development initiatives in elephant habitats.

    I believe that the prohibitionist ivory-trade policy has led to the elephant-poaching crisis and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of elephants since 1990, when the CITES ivory trade ban came into effect in most countries. It could have been avoided with a legal system of raw ivory supply to China. It is not too late to begin one.

    An ivory trade system should be designed that will offer long-term, regular supplies from accredited suppliers to accredited buyers. A ‘one-off’ sale of the type that CITES authorized previously is NOT recommended. That is not trade in the normal sense of the term, it is akin to someone selling his car every ten years. The two previous sales created confusion, market instability and an opportunity for wildlife anti-use organizations to manufacture propaganda. A long-term ivory trade system involving both the producers and buyers has never been tried. It is way past time to get serious about conserving elephants by satisfying all stakeholders, removing incentives to poach. The only losers would be those organizations and individuals that receive donations from supporters to stop the “poaching crisis”.

    Daniel Stiles, PhD is an independent consultant who has carried out extensive research on the ivory trade and the causes of elephant poaching. He is a member of the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group.

    Banner Photo: Elephant Family Group, Photo Credit Daniel Stiles