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Why Prohibiting Trade in Ivory Won’t Save Elephants

A controlled, legal trade is more likely to slow elephant poaching

This opinion essay offers another view on the question posed in our Plus-Minus debate, The Ivory Market: Keep It Closed or Open It Up?

What if we’re wrong about how best to save elephants from being killed for their ivory?

Photo of Elephant in TanzaniaPhoto by Dongyi Liu The ivory prohibition schema being pushed by wildlife and animal rights groups threatens to become conservation's version of the War on Drugs.

By now, there’s little dispute that these magnificent creatures are running out of time. Poaching rates continue to exceed elephant population growth rates, making it essential for the international conservation community to find real-world solutions to the ongoing crisis.

I certainly share the growing revulsion over poaching. But I find it alarming that so much of what’s now being promoted as elephant advocacy is likely to accomplish little for elephants.

Instead of looking at what’s behind the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory, elephant supporters are pushing for the global prohibition of all trade in ivory.

Here’s the problem. Ivory is no passing fashion, as I’ve written about at length. It’s been valued since prehistoric times. Anti-ivory campaigners caricature its primary use as carving material for the production of “trinkets.” Yes, huge quantities of bric-a-brac have been made from ivory, as well as a vast amount of industrial uses — piano keys, billiard balls and the like.

But the dominant use of ivory has always been art, and now, millennia later, we are left with an astonishing array of culturally significant objects made from this organic treasure, objects that we cannot destroy unless we want to erase vast swaths of not just of art history, but human history. Suppressing trade in these legal objects does nothing to protect elephants.

It’s a fantasy to think that appreciation of, interest in, and thus demand for ivory will ever entirely disappear. That’s why the ivory prohibition schema being pushed by wildlife and animal rights groups threatens to become conservation's version of the War on Drugs — yet another costly crusade that, after immense suffering and loss of life, will reveal that a problematic trade item can only be managed, not eradicated. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with ivory — it’s how ivory is often obtained from elephants that is so troubling.

But wait, you say. Behind every piece of ivory is a dead elephant, right?

True. However, that doesn’t mean the elephant had to be killed. Every year, a huge number of elephants expire from natural causes. Their substantial remains include their tusks, which, depending on terrain, can often be recovered.  “Pick-up,” or found ivory, as it’s called, has always been a significant source of tusks.

Anti-ivory trade campaigners scoff at the tonnage of natural mortality ivory available and say that despite the fact no elephants are harmed by the collection of these blood-free tusks, allowing trade in them should be outlawed. Commerce in any kind of ivory, whatever the source, is unfathomable, according to this point of view.

By now, most of the northern hemisphere’s animal-loving public thinks an elephant-friendly cross-border ivory trade — even domestic trade in bona fide antique ivory carvings — is an impossibility.

This tunnel vision is not just blinkered, it’s blind to a common-sense approach that could save elephants: Allow access to what’s legal and acceptable as part of reinforcing curbs against what’s illegal and unacceptable. 

Sound familiar? It’s the overall strategy used to manage alcohol, tobacco, and, increasingly, marijuana, and other commerce that must be carefully shaped to be socially tolerable. Such a strategy imposes steep “sin taxes” on the legal product to underwrite enforcement and educational campaigns to stigmatize behaviors like underage drinking and smoking in public. Do those elaborate regulatory regimes function perfectly? Hardly. But they are far preferable to the criminal bonanzas created by outright bans.

The existence of an immense amount of legal ivory — whether certified natural mortality tusks or authentic antique carvings — means that total prohibition of commerce won’t ever be completely accepted, and efforts to enforce that will inevitably be undermined.

If all trade in ivory is outlawed, ivory sales won’t stop. They will just go underground, leaving only criminals in charge, making it highly unlikely poaching will diminish.

Not so fast, you might be thinking. Don’t legal ivory markets just provide cover for trade in poached tusks?

Not necessarily. Where it’s a truly serious issue is in the People’s Republic of China. There, the legal market is shadowed by an illegal trade large enough to suck in most of the ivory poached in Africa, making the country a black hole for elephants.

Clearly, China has failed to live up to the promises it made before the 2008 international ivory sale to, as former chief of enforcement for CITES John M. Sellar described, “implement a comprehensive and rigidly-enforced internal ivory control system.” The country’s inability to crack down on illegal ivory has led to conjecture that the system must be hopelessly riddled with corruption.

What can be done about it? Not much, unless a solution can be found that appeals to the ruling party.  The current government shows little sign of a shift in thinking, despite its recent one-year moratorium on imports of carved ivory. China regards its carving industry as a “national intangible cultural heritage.” As the second largest economy in the world and a global power, the People’s Republic can afford to dismiss pressure on this issue as “outside meddling.”

There is, however, one lever that could be used: China wants a continuing flow of legal ivory for its legitimate carving factories. If the international community could agree on a carefully-crafted, partial lifting of the ivory ban, CITES could permit China access to legal ivory from Africa, in exchange for restructuring its legal market in addition to effective and demonstrable suppression of its illegal market.

What’s required for this to work? First of all, a steady but limited legal supply of African tusks from natural mortality, organized under CITES’s international framework. Source countries would be strictly limited to those with stable elephant populations and transparent systems of collecting and stockpiling natural mortality ivory — both huge anti-poaching and anti-corruption incentives. Recent technological advances could enable a reformed trade to function with a degree of precision and transparency undreamt of a generation ago, maintaining the integrity of the supply chain from tusk to carving to final sale.

In buying countries like China, strict licensing of factories and retailers and heavy taxation of all carved ivory transactions would suppress excess demand and kick back additional resources to elephant conservation. In addition, registration of all collections and effective policing to stigmatize and criminalize trafficking, laundering, selling, and possession of illegal ivory are crucial.

Under an effective enforcement regime, a well-protected legal market sets the parameters that define legitimate ivory use. Ivory demand can be diminished and shaped into acceptable channels.

But aren’t Africa and Asia simply too corrupt for such a system to work? Well, what makes anyone think that there would be less corruption under an ivory prohibition regime than there is now under a cross-border trade ban?

With a well-regulated limited legal trade, impoverished rural Africans, instead of turning to poaching, could receive direct benefits from ivory sales for sharing habitat with elephants. Carving factories in buying countries would be able to rely on a continuing flow of lower-priced legal ivory instead of taking the risks of turning to expensive poached ivory for supply. Contraband ivory would become steadily sidelined and less profitable and, in the end, unsalable, shrinking elephant poaching.

Reducing the river of blood ivory to a trickle will take time, but it can work. Clinging to the impossible goal of eliminating all commerce in ivory only ensures the status quo—and continued poaching.

What’s more important — wishful thinking or workable solutions? Ideological purity or saving elephants? It’s counterproductive to destroy legal ivory along with poached tusks.

The entire issue of trade in ivory desperately needs a rethink while there's still time to save elephants. What is likely the last opportunity for world governments to hammer out a framework for a well-regulated ivory trade that can undercut poaching will occur at the next Conference of the Parties to CITES, to be held in Cape Town, South Africa in 2016.

For the future of elephants and the Africans who co-exist with them, the way forward lies in controlling ivory, not demonizing it.

John Frederick Walker
John Frederick Walker is the author of Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants. He has written on ivory trade issues for The Washington Post, National Geographic News, World Policy Journal, and other publications.

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To AF who recently commented promoting regulated trade, I believe he is not aware of the fact that in 2006-8 the regulated trade with the second “one-off” sale if 110 tons of ivory to china and japan is what made poaching explode. There was no poaching before and it is after the sale that it exploded. The good news, after few years from this paper, is that poaching is going down, this is mainly because since confirmation from chinese president of a total ban on ivory trade by 2017 price of ivory has dropped from 2100 usd a kg to 700 usd kg and keeps dropping. Once also hong kong will stop trading poaching will remain a bad memory of the past. Ivory is not like drug that can be produce, the amount present does not fulfill the demands and automatically injecting legal ivory in the market without being able to fulfill it only raise the price and ignite poaching in order to fulfill the demand.

By Malcolm Ryen on Thu, October 19, 2017 at 9:14 pm

This makes a lot of sense. Poaching is horrible, but I actually think it’s so disrespectful to the elephants who died when governments just destroy confiscated tusks or artwork. Why not put the energy and funds into regulation—making sales go back to preservation to try to redeem what’s gone wrong in the past? Current efforts seem so counterproductive and showy and weird. Don’t know how to put it, but it’s like the opposite of an indigenous worldview, which to me would be more relevant for this kind of thing.

By AF on Wed, October 11, 2017 at 2:00 pm

So the correlation between a walrus tusk and an elephant tusk is what?  The word ivory and that’s about it.
So ban all walrus ivory too because that comes from Africa?
And every thing fossilized too because F it
Except Alaska and Africa are almost a world apart
And share little similarities

Also the whole walrus isn’t an elephant thing.
But ban it too because EDUCATION is too much of a stretch
Versus banning everything with the word ivory….

By reading comments I’ve gathered you all must be really educated in the subject .  But your not

It takes a 3 second lesson to spot the difference between the two.  It’s called a core and shreger lines .
Modern elephant ivory has different growth patterns than mammoth ivory.    But teaching something I teach to 5 year olds everyday in the corse of 2 minutes is   I don’t know not preferred.    Keep the stupid people stupid I guess.

keep fighting the war on logic and education you are all doing a fine job.

If you can’t spell LOSE or tell the difference between the word LOOSE, you’ve already LOST and autocorrect won’t fix your kind of stupid..

By Chris F on Thu, March 17, 2016 at 4:19 pm

A reply to Andrew’s question about Rhino ban and how it is not helping rhinos. Sorry for such late reply but i had forgotten about this article. What people should know is that in fact south african rhino farmers have been lobbying since several years in order to request to Cites to legalise a controlled trade. Our experience in Tanzania is that every time the country tried to propose to sell its ivory (they tried twice) poaching heavily increased. This mean that as soon as there is a possibility to have a legal supply, poaching increase. Do consider that there has been several arrests of hunters who were using the hunting permits only to export the horn legally to then re sell it at huge price as medicine against cancer. So there are already on the market legal hunting permits and they have been abused profusely. Also considering rhino horn is used as a medicine, legalising its trade would also mean accepting its curative value, which i believe would be a huge lye for all those who would invest a substantial amount of money thinking they are saving their lives from cancer. Finally the price of a poached animal will always be lower then a farmed one and considering the potential capacity of the asian market there will never be enough horn to fulfil the huge demand that would automatically increase exponentially if the “anti cancer medicine” was legally sold in all pharmacies..

By Malcolm on Wed, October 14, 2015 at 2:14 am

Do any of you who emotionally push for passage of California AB-96 ivory ban actually know what the bill says? Would you be OK with the bill if it excluded fossil mammoth and fossil walrus ivory from its prohibitions? Have a look below. Don’t let the facts get in the way of your being right. And don’t hesitate to speak to your senator NOW if you are not supporting this terrible bill that will not save elephants.

You will see that Section 2 (4) in theory seems to invoke huge fines and/or a year imprisonment if a person were to gift their archaeologist friend a shard of ancient mammoth ivory for 2 birthdays in a row while he was visiting the persons home.

06/17/15   From committee chair, with author’s amendments: Amend, and re-refer to committee. Read second time, amended, and re-referred to Com. on N.R. & W.

Introduced by Assembly Member Atkins
(Principal coauthor: Senator Lara)
(Coauthors: Assembly Members Bloom, Bonta, Chiu, Dababneh, Gatto, Levine, Low, Maienschein, McCarty, Rendon, Ting, Thurmond, Waldron, and Williams)
(Coauthor: Senator Coauthors: Senators Allen, Hancock, Pan, and Pavley)

January 07, 2015

An act to add Section 2022 to the Fish and Game Code, and to repeal Section 5 of Chapter 692 of the Statutes of 1976, relating to animal parts and products.


AB 96, as amended, Atkins. Animal parts and products: importation or sale of ivory and rhinoceros horn.
Existing law makes it a crime to import into the state for commercial purposes, to possess with intent to sell, or to sell within the state, the dead body, or any part or product thereof, of an elephant. Existing law exempts the possession with intent to sell, or sale of the dead body, or any part or product thereof, of any elephant before June 1, 1977, or the possession with intent to sell or the sale of any such item on or after June 1, 1977, if the item was imported before January 1, 1977.
This bill would delete this exemption. By changing the definition of a crime, this bill would impose a state-mandated local program.
This bill would prohibit a person from purchasing, selling, offering for sale, possessing with intent to sell, or importing make it unlawful to purchase, sell, offer for sale, possess with intent to sell, or import with intent to sell ivory or rhinoceros horn, except as specified, and would make this prohibition enforceable by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The bill would make a violation of this provision or any rule, regulation, or order adopted pursuant to this provision a misdemeanor subject to specified criminal penalties. By creating a new crime, the bill would impose a state-mandated local program. In addition to the specified criminal penalties, the bill would authorize the department to impose a civil an administrative penalty of up to $10,000 for a violation of this provision or any rule, regulation, or order adopted pursuant to this provision. The bill would authorize the department to permit the purchase, sale, offer for sale, possession with intent to sell, or importation with intent to sell ivory or rhinoceros horn for educational or scientific purposes by a bona fide educational or scientific institution if certain criteria are satisfied.
This bill would provide that the provisions of this bill are severable.
This bill would make these provisions operative on July 1, 2016.
The California Constitution requires the state to reimburse local agencies and school districts for certain costs mandated by the state. Statutory provisions establish procedures for making that reimbursement.
This bill would provide that no reimbursement is required by this act for a specified reason.
Digest Key
Vote: MAJORITY   Appropriation: NO   Fiscal Committee: YES   Local Program: YES
Bill Text
The people of the State of California do enact as follows:

The Legislature finds and declares all of the following:
(a) There is worldwide concern regarding the plight of elephants and rhinoceroses, who are being poached at alarming rates — an average of 96 elephants per day are killed in Africa.
(b) Illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest transnational crime and ivory helps fund the military operations of notorious terrorist groups. Smuggling gangs move tons of tusks to markets thousands of miles away.
(c) International, federal, and state laws are all being strengthened to protect these iconic species from cruelty and extinction. The states of New York and New Jersey recently enacted strong prohibitions on intrastate ivory and rhinoceros horn commerce and the federal government has proposed strengthened ivory trade and import regulations.
(d) California has prohibited the ivory trade since 1977, but a loophole has rendered the law unenforceable — allowing illegal sales to flourish. San Francisco and Los Angeles have consistently ranked among the top trading markets for illegal ivory in the United States.
SEC. 2.
Section 2022 is added to the Fish and Game Code, to read:
(a) For the purposes of this section, the following terms have the following meanings:
(1) “Bona fide educational or scientific institution” means an institution that establishes through documentation either of the following:
(A) Educational or scientific tax exemption, from the federal Internal Revenue Service or the institution’s national, state, or local tax authority.
(B) Accreditation as an educational or scientific institution, from a qualified national, regional, state, or local authority for the institution’s location.
(2) “Ivory” means a tooth or tusk from a species of elephant, hippopotamus, mammoth, mastodon, walrus, warthog, whale, or narwhal, or a piece thereof, whether raw ivory or worked ivory, and includes a product containing, or advertised as containing, ivory.
(3) “Rhinoceros horn” means the horn, or a piece thereof, or a derivative such as powder, of a species of rhinoceros, and includes a product containing, or advertised as containing, a rhinoceros horn.
(4) “Sale” or “sell” means selling, trading, bartering for monetary or nonmonetary consideration, giving away in conjunction with a commercial transaction, or giving away at a location where a commercial transaction occurred at least once during the same or the previous calendar year.
(5) “Total value” means either the fair market value or the actual price paid for ivory or rhinoceros horn, whichever is greater.
(b) Except as provided in subdivisions (c) and (d), a person shall not subdivision (c), it is unlawful to purchase, sell, offer for sale, possess with intent to sell, or import with intent to sell ivory or rhinoceros horn.
(c) The prohibitions set forth in subdivision (b) shall not apply to any of the following:
(1) An employee or agent of the federal or state government undertaking a law enforcement activity pursuant to federal or state law, or a mandatory duty required by federal law.
(2) An activity that is authorized by an exemption or permit under federal law or that is otherwise expressly authorized under federal law.
(3) Ivory or rhinoceros horn that is part of a musical instrument, including, but not limited to, a string or wind instrument or piano, and that is less than 20 percent by volume of the instrument, if the owner or seller provides historical documentation demonstrating provenance and showing the item was manufactured no later than 1975.
(4) Ivory or rhinoceros horn that is part of a bona fide antique and that is less than five percent by volume of the antique, if the antique status is established by the owner or seller of the antique with historical documentation demonstrating provenance and showing the antique to be not less than 100 years old.

(5) The department may permit the purchase, sale, offer for sale, possession with intent to sell, or importation with intent to sell ivory or rhinoceros horn for educational or scientific purposes by a bona fide educational or scientific institution if both of the following criteria are satisfied:

(A) The purchase, sale, offer for sale, possession with intent to sell, or import with intent to sell the ivory or rhinoceros horn is not prohibited by federal law.

(B) The ivory or rhinoceros horn was legally acquired before January 1, 1991, and was not subsequently transferred from one person to another for financial gain or profit after July 1, 2016.

(e)It shall be presumptive evidence of possession with intent to sell ivory or rhinoceros horn if the ivory or rhinoceros horn is possessed in a retail or wholesale outlet commonly used for the buying or selling of similar items. This presumption
(d) Possession of ivory or rhinoceros horn in a retail or wholesale outlet commonly used for the buying or selling of similar items is prima facie evidence of possession with intent to sell. This evidence shall not preclude a finding of intent to sell based on any other evidence that may serve to independently establish that intent. intent independently or in conjunction with this evidence.

(e) For a violation of any provision of this section, or any rule, regulation, or order adopted pursuant to this section, the following criminal penalties shall be imposed:
(1) For a first conviction, where the total value of the ivory or rhinoceros horn is two hundred fifty dollars ($250) or less, the offense shall be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), imprisonment in the county jail for not more than 30 days, or by both the fine and imprisonment.
(2) For a first conviction, where the total value of the ivory or rhinoceros horn is more than two hundred fifty dollars ($250), the offense shall be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than five thousand dollars ($5,000), or more than forty thousand dollars ($40,000), imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, or by both the fine and imprisonment.
(3) For a second or subsequent conviction, where the total value of the ivory or rhinoceros horn is two hundred fifty dollars ($250) or less, the offense shall be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than five thousand dollars ($5,000), or more than forty thousand dollars ($40,000), imprisonment in county jail for not more than one year, or by both the fine and imprisonment.
(4) For a second or subsequent conviction, where the total value of the ivory or rhinoceros horn is more than two hundred fifty dollars ($250), the offense shall be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or more than fifty thousand dollars ($50,000) or the amount equal to two times the total value of the ivory or rhinoceros horn involved in the violation, whichever is greater, imprisonment in county jail for not more than one year, or by both the fine and imprisonment.

(f) In addition to, and separate from, any criminal penalty provided for under subdivision (f), a civil or (e), an administrative fine penalty of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000) may be imposed for a violation of any provision of this section, or any rule, regulation, or order adopted pursuant to this section. Civil penalties Penalties authorized pursuant to this subdivision may be imposed administratively by the department consistent with all of the following:
(1) The chief of enforcement issues a complaint to any person or entity on which an administrative civil penalty may be imposed pursuant to this section. The complaint shall allege the act or failure to act that constitutes a violation, relevant facts, the provision of law authorizing the civil administrative penalty to be imposed, and the proposed penalty amount.
(2) The complaint and order is served by personal notice or certified mail and informs the party served that the party may request a hearing no later than 20 days from the date of service. If a hearing is requested, it shall be scheduled before the director or his or her designee, which designee shall not be the chief of enforcement issuing the complaint and order. A request for hearing shall contain a brief statement of the material facts the party claims support his or her contention that no administrative penalty should be imposed or that an administrative penalty of a lesser amount is warranted. A party served with a complaint pursuant to this subdivision waives the right to a hearing if no hearing is requested within 20 days of service of the complaint, in which case the order imposing the administrative penalty shall become final.
(3) The director, or his or her designee, shall control the nature and order of the hearing proceedings. Hearings shall be informal in nature, and need not be conducted according to the technical rules relating to evidence. The director director, or his or her designee designee, shall issue a final order within 45 days of the close of the hearing. A final copy of the order shall be served by certified mail upon the party served with the complaint.
(4) A party may obtain review of the final order by filing a petition for a writ of mandate with the superior court within 30 days of the date of service of the final order. The administrative penalty shall be due and payable to the department within 60 days after the time to seek judicial review has expired or, where the party has not requested a hearing of the order, within 20 days after the order imposing an administrative penalty becomes final.

(g) For any conviction or other entry of judgment imposed by a court for a violation of this section resulting in a fine, the department may, upon appropriation by the Legislature, court may pay one-half of the fine, but not to exceed five hundred dollars ($500), to any person giving information that led to the conviction or other entry of judgment. This reward shall not apply if the informant is a regular salaried law enforcement officer, or officer or agent of the department.

(h) Upon conviction or other entry of judgment for a violation of this section, any seized ivory or rhinoceros horn shall be forfeited and, upon forfeiture, either maintained by the department for educational or training purposes, donated by the department to a bona fide educational or scientific institution, or destroyed.
(i) Administrative penalties collected pursuant to this section shall be deposited in the Fish and Game Preservation Fund and used for law enforcement purposes upon appropriation by the Legislature.
(j) This section does not preclude enforcement under Section 653o of the Penal Code.
SEC. 3.
Section 5 of Chapter 692 of the Statutes of 1976 is repealed.
SEC. 4.
The provisions of this act are severable. If any provision of this act or its application is held invalid, that invalidity shall not affect other provisions or applications that can be given effect without the invalid provision or application.
SEC. 5.
No reimbursement is required by this act pursuant to Section 6 of Article XIII B of the California Constitution because the only costs that may be incurred by a local agency or school district will be incurred because this act creates a new crime or infraction, eliminates a crime or infraction, or changes the penalty for a crime or infraction, within the meaning of Section 17556 of the Government Code, or changes the definition of a crime within the meaning of Section 6 of Article XIII B of the California Constitution.
SEC. 6.
This act shall become operative on July 1, 2016.

By Turtle on Fri, June 19, 2015 at 4:53 pm

If not selling pre-convention colonial ivory would save the elephant population I would gladly give up the business. A question for those in favor of a complete ban… How has a compete ban on trading rhino horn served the rhino?

By Adrian on Wed, June 17, 2015 at 12:28 am

I’m not sure where you are getting your facts, but a write above said it best…when we allow trade, poaching explodes. When we ban trade completely, elephant populations recover. Since we are at a tipping point, with more elephants being slaughtered than reproducing, we are at a tipping point.
As for the fellow who will lose his job…is that more important than losing an iconic species? I would imagine you should be making some sort of atonement for facilitating this extinction.
Yes on AB96 with NO compromise.
And by the way Earth Island, you sure lost a lot of credibility with this article.

By Natalie Gray on Tue, June 16, 2015 at 2:37 pm

Open letter to the California State legislature regarding the impending vote to ban all ivory sales:

this letter is to officially lodge protest with you regarding the potential passage of AB-96. I am one of those people whose business will be very negatively impacted by this proposal if it should ever become law, as fossil ivory has been at the heart of my business. While I heartily support any real effort to help curtail the slaughter of the modern elephant, I fail to see any relevant connection between that and California outlawing business in fossil ivory, antique ivory and any otherwise legal ivory. The term ‘fossil ivory’ refers to the enormous amounts of mammoth and mastodon ivory found primarily in Alaska, Canada, and Russia. The last of these species became extinct some 3500 years ago, but most have been gone for over 10,000 years. If AB-96 becomes law, buying and selling even a fragment of this ancient material will invoke powerfully punitive measures. There is also fossilized walrus ivory, ancient material excavated by Alaskan Eskimos from their ancestral village sites. This is one of the few things our native Eskimos can mine on land they own and sell to augment their very difficult quest for income. Sale of any of this ancient material to, from or within California will likewise be met with powerfully punitive measures. These types of ivory are easily distinguishable in appearance and content from any recent ivories. Some inflammatory verbiage in AB-96 suggests that elephant ivory is being disguised as mammoth ivory to be smuggled from China into the USA as trinkets for sale—-presumably to support a burgeoning market for such nik-naks and trinkets in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The US FWS has since 1989 used foolproof and easily learned examination techniques to distinguish elephant ivory from fossil ivory. The US FWS has a link on their site to instruct anyone in what to look for and how to look so as to be sure whether ivory is from elephant or mammoth or mastodon—-see below:

Our US customs agents have had no difficulty making this distinction.  Since 1989 the US FWS has contended that there is no consequential black market in all of America for elephant ivory. And yet recent press statements by those most fervent to see this proposal become law would have it that the U.S. is the 2nd largest black market in the world second only to China.  I understand the great emotion at the outrage in Africa which fueled the impulse and verbiage of the AB-96 proposal. I understand the desire by right-thinking Americans to want some role in helping the elephant and rhino survive possible extinction and thrive as a species.  But I also see that this well intentioned group is also casting out too large a net in promoting this proposal and needs more education on the ramifications of letting this proposal become law as written.. I am of the belief that the survival of the elephant and rhinoceros in Africa is in danger largely due to the tremendous bounty being offered in Africa by Chinese traders for the tusks and horns of these animals. I believe the Chinese are taking these tusks and bringing them home to be bought and sold primarily within China where the value is by far the highest and not, as suggested in the AB-96 proposal, within America. They understand that when the elephant is gone the Chinese stockpiles of ivory will be all the more valuable in China, their primary marketplace for raw and finished goods. No one pays as much for ivory as the Chinese. I also do not see the saving of this species from Chinese aggression being addressed one bit by outlawing or severely curtailing fossil ivory, antique ivory and elephant ivory in Califiornia that has been legally owned and used and recycled here at least since 1989 when importation into the USA was halted. Our US customs agents have been quite efficient at screening what comes into our country. The relatively small and stable market here in America has all it needs and doesn’t want or need to import more. The same holds true for all the other types of ivory AB-96 sweepingly seeks to outlaw trade in, regardless of age, type or legality. And in so doing, to create criminals where there were none before. This is a highly emotional and very punitive proposal. To completely ban ivory goods, regardless of vintage from reaching the market, those goods will ultimately become items insurance companies will no longer be able to attribute a market value to, and therefore insure accurately for loss or damage. And these goods are not nickel and dime trinkets, but significant art and high level craft. Privately or publicly, their sale will be illegal. Passage of the AB-96 proposal will dislodge at the very least 25 years worth of legally conducted business and cost a great deal for the countless owners and purveyors of significant ivory art and objects.  It will cost many artisans and purveyors and Alaska natives a significant if not total amount of their livelihood.  Criminalizing and vilifying all ivory and its use is not sensible, just or economically productive. And sadly, not one elephant will be saved by this. Ivory is not evil, and destroying ivory, elephant, mammoth, walrus, whale, narwhal does not respect the elephant. Only stopping the Chinese bounty being paid out in Africa for elephant ivory will stop the immediate danger to this animal. In the longer run, sensible elephant herd management and a controlled elephant ivory market will allow the species to continue and thrive.
  Please re-think and re-write this proposal before passing it into law—-do not let the very hot and short-sighted emotion that brought this very broad proposal to the California legislature in the first place allow these extremely severe and costly ideas to become law and negatively impact many livelihoods and businesses.

By Turtle on Sun, June 14, 2015 at 5:44 pm

I would like to discuss Andrew’s comment. Dear Andrew i very much appreciate that you state in your comment that you are an ivory trader, which means if ivory was banned you would loose your job. This said i believe there are some good points in your comment, especially in regards to educating the asian market. And there are several NGOs doing so, i.e. Wild Aid. And i do agree that generally prohibitionism does not work. But you have to consider that ivory is not a consumable, as alcohol or drugs, that once you finish a bottle you want another one, ivory has become in china an investment. Something you buy and then re-sell to make more money.. And the fundamental difference with alcohol and drugs is that production is virtually unlimited so that you can always fulfil the demand. Which is not the case with ivory. In Tanzania we had 134,000 elephants in 2006 and since CITES allowed China to trade in ivory we have lost 91,000 elephants in 9 years remaining with a current population of 43,000. At this rate in 4 years there will be no more elephant in this country. And the rest of Africa is in the same situation. So there are simply not enough elephants on this planet to be able to fulfil the demand for ivory in China. And as much as education is important, we have no time! Before you change mindset it takes generation/s and we only have 5-10 years maximum before elephants go completely extinct. So we need a strong immediate action. And te only solution now is A TOTAL BAN ON IVORY TRADE. I do understand some few hundreds people on this planet will loose their jobs but unfortunately i believe the elephant species is more important then few people’s job opportunity.. And again, if the total ban on ivory trade worked in 1989 up to 2006 why should it not work again? As soon as the regulated trade was instated by CITES poaching exploded, do you really think it was only a coincidence? And do you really think that it is possible to curb the rampant corruption in Africa and China before we loose all our elephants? Facts as of now demonstrate the contrary otherwise we would have not lost more then 60% of elephant populations in the past 9 years.

By Malcolm Ryen on Sat, June 06, 2015 at 12:18 am

Ivory: A controlled Legal Trade vs. A complete Ban

It would appear that the court of public opinion has already rendered their verdict, and consequently there will be a complete ban on the trade of any pre-ban legal ivory (antique ivory acquired prior to 1976) quite soon.

Is this a good thing for the elephant populations, or another step in their demise – only this time as pawns of a geo-political farce done simply to placate public opinion?

The contradictory arguments, backed by equally contradictory facts / figures are prevalent for both a legal trade, or for a complete ban.

As professional ivory traders we choose to approach this debate from a different angle, being both elephant lovers / conservationists, and also traders of colonial legal ivory.

We ONLY trade legal (CITES certified) ivory (pre-ban, 1976). This ivory is sourced within Europe. We then distribute this “antique” ivory to the Asian market (Hong Kong & China). We strongly condemn the poaching of elephants, the illegal (corrupt black market) trade, and any trading of ivory (raw or carved) that is not fully supported and endorsed by legal documents issued by CITES.

Operating legally within this current CITES regulated ivory market - the system works, and (at least temporarily) provides for a steady supply of legal (re-cycled) European ivory into the Far East Market. This is only seen to be a stop-gap solution that needs to parallel the longer term solution of cultural re-education. “Every legal pair of ivory tusks bought (today) by a Chinese factory is one elephant life saved.” Daniel Stiles. It is about phasing in readily available legal ivory (re-cycling that which has already died), to help solve a current demand that cannot simply be quashed overnight. Ultimately and most importantly the longer-term aim is to totally reduce/stop the demand, via education programs that teach cultural insignificance of ivory, against the survival of the elephant as a beautiful majestic animal. Everyone should finally agree: “Only an elephant should wear ivory”.

In China today the legal ivory market looks like this:

•  There are 47 licensed ivory trading / carving factories registered with the Chinese Government
•  The price of legal CITES Certified (raw) ivory is €750.00 to €850.00 per kilo depending on size and quality. The price of legal CITES Certified (carved) ivory is significantly less
•  Balanced against legal ivory, the price of illegal ivory is lower, on average €450 to €500.00 per kilo.
•  Far East buyers clearly are willing to pay the additional €’s to avoid criminality. Although they state that if there is no legal supply, the price of illegal ivory will go up and they will be forced to buy illicit goods from illegal sources.  This will make ivory even more sort after / desired due to its increased rarity.

Importing legal CITES Certified directly into China is a very long and difficult process. The Chinese Government has recently announced that as of 2018 it will be illegal to import pre-ban ivory into China. In addition they have notified the ivory traders & carvers that the Government will already begin to “slow-down” the import process immediately. Likewise in Hong Kong the prices for legal ivory are very similar to those of China; the process of importing legal ivory being very stringent, organised and controlled. However, a further improved licensing system needs to be enforced in China (similar to the current EU model) using official certificates, with unique numbers engraved on each tusk or piece of ivory, and identity photos attached as an annex per certificate.

In Europe, in countries with historic & colonial ties to Africa, there are large private collections of ivory. This old legal ivory (no longer as culturally relevant to the West), helps supply an on-going demand in the Far East.  Here lies the crux of the issue, the fact that a total ban on ivory can’t nor ever will stop the demand for ivory overnight. This requires a long-term strategy of cultural re-education towards a changed attitude towards ivory. It requires ivory to be seen in the Far East as no longer imbued with high social status, nor with magical / spirituality / medicinal powers, nor the only application of the ancient art of skilled carving traditions. This clearly this is not something that can be “white washed / sanitised” or stamped out overnight, - and certainly not simply so NGO’s & Governments “can be seen to be” placating an emotionally charged public opinion (fed by a media coverage of the horrific illegal slaughter and poaching of elephants). The horrors are disturbing but the debate is more complex than purely an emotional response. A total ban is simply not a tidy solution. Realistically a viable and sustainable solution takes time, planning and much investment of money & direct hands on effort.

We believe the key issue is cultural re-education along with a stepped / timed implementation plan. This requires an active direct involvement of NGO’s. Politicians, and Governments, it requires a different focus (more complicate than simply banning all trade). It requires targeting the very places where the demand originates, and re-educating at this source. In China where ivory has a high value (and not just monetary), the Chinese word for Tusk is Teeth, and many Chinese still simply believe the tusks fall out of the elephant leaving the animal unharmed. Education in schools is critical, teaching about endangered species and animal conservation, telling stories, showing films about the wild elephants and juxtaposing this harshly with images of slaughtered elephants savaged for poached ivory just to satisfy a consumer need. This is the duty and responsibility for international Governments, NGO’s and Educators (not just within China) to actively help teach about the origin of ivory, and the outcome of ignorance left un-checked. For once education may take a “bottom-up” approach as kids lecture their parents on the use of ivory.

Simply executing a total ban will have a wide ranging impact upon many people in different walks of life, both in the West & in the East.…….. There are many issues at stake:-

➢  In the Far East a total ban of ivory tries to instantly undermine an ancient 3000 year old culture, that needs time to modify: Skilled ivory carvers need a new focus of their highly traditional trade, religious temples & places of worship require new symbols, herbalists need to learn other cures, social status needs to find new expressions amongst the social elite.
➢  In the West a total ban of ivory, instantly undermines the value of family heirlooms / inheritances passed down for generations will suddenly be rendered worthless. Likewise a total ban immediately potentially criminalises the sale of harmless antique items like:- guitars, pianos, cue-balls, carved ornaments, whilst religious artifacts or relics (frequently hundreds of years old) will technically be classified illegal.

However, in our opinion the biggest negative impact of an immediate total ivory ban will be upon the very elephant population that the ban is purporting to protect. “Does implementing a total ban of anything eradicate the demand, does it simply vanish?”

Looking with the hindsight of history, and to quote Economist Doug Bandow “Banning all ivory sales in an attempt to stop poached ivory sales is a bit like outlawing all alcohol sales to prevent purchases by minors. We saw how well Prohibition worked: The illegal market expanded dramatically, enriching criminals, who enjoyed greater incentives to trade with anyone and everyone. The government was forced to massively increase enforcement resources and focus on preventing consumption that previously had been legal. Prohibition only sense only if you believed alcohol consumption should be banned as intrinsically evil. So it is with ivory”.

Completely banning anything, does not eradicate the demand, but only forces it underground into an alluring affluent dark sub culture. Monitoring a legal trade will never be 100%, but it certainly reduces the need for everything to go underground. The big fear is a total ban will create and promote higher market value for ivory, an increase in poaching in countries where political instability, poverty and corruption is rampant, - all ultimately leading to an explosion of organised crime… Greed and ignorance and crime will lead the way illegal towards the demise of an already rapidly dwindling elephant population.

In a scathing and somewhat personal attack on Daniel Stiles (A member of the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group and an advocate of a legal pre-ban ivory trade in a highly regulated environment) Grace Gabriel wrote in National Geographic about her favorite Einstein quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” She claims that the only way to succeed in saving elephants is to “smash every link in the supply chain”… If the illegal chain has not been smashed after decades of trying maybe Einstein was right. Even CITES acknowledges the failure “Given the present rise in illegal killing of elephants in West, Central and East Africa it is clear that current measures are not containing the present surge in the illegal trade in ivory.” Western governments need to stop insisting on doing more of the same, which guarantees failure. The only realistic approach is maintain a market for legal ivory and in tandem launch an unprecedented educational campaign aimed at today’s youth.

Please stop the insanity.

By Adrian on Fri, June 05, 2015 at 5:49 am

I believe we should pose ourselves a very simple question. In the 70-80ies we had the same problem of poaching in Africa, at an even bigger scale. How did it stop? CITES instated a total ban on all ivory trade in 1989. And poaching in Africa stopped. Since then elephants populations grew again and doubled. Then in 1997 CITES allowed Japan (a small country) to buy and trade in ivory. Poaching started again but at a very limited rate. And then in 2006 CITES, using the same arguments the author is using here, allowed China (this time a huge country) to buy and trade in ivory. Poaching exploded and we lost more then 50-60% of our elephant since. So the big question we should all pose to ourselves is: if the total ban in ivory trade worked in 1989 why would it not work again now? Please all readers consider that regulated trade is already in place!!! John with your article you are misleading readers. Controlled trade is the actual status quo!

By Micol Farina on Fri, June 05, 2015 at 1:09 am

Dear John, i find this article extremely misleading. Telling lies to readers. What you propose is actually the status quo. In fact China has permission to sell the ivory bought in 2006-8 at a rate of 5 tons a year up to 2017. In fact the one off sale was approved with exactly the same statements you are using now. Which were to curb down poaching (which before 2006 was almost non existent) with injection of legal ivory in the market. The result are evident under everybody’s eyes and in the past 9 years elephant populations in Africa have been halved.
Also what you do not consider is that the current requirement for ivory in China (by statement of Chinese representative at Cites in 2013) is of 200 tons a year which roughly correspond to 10,000 elephants yearly (and considering the size of the tusks of the last few remaining elephants, quite likely many more then that). What you do not say is that to accumulate the current ivory stock piles in Africa through natural mortality took 25 years, since the total ban in 1989 and the world total ivory available in stocks would only last a couple of years of legal trade. And ivory, contrary to drugs, can not be produced in quantity established by the needs of the market. Also what you fail to say is that ivory has a value only when it can be sold and bought, as it is currently allowed to do in china, thanks to CITES 2006 decision (price went from 150 usd per Kg in 2006 to 2100 usd now, thanks to the current legal trade). Tanzania has tried to sell its ivory twice at CITES and both times the year before the Cites meetings (2010 and 2013) we had a huge spike in poaching confirming that the illegal market is carefully following the legal and ready to inject more ivory under the umbrella of the legalised one. I believe you are not completely informed on the issue and i suggest you dig deeper into the matter before leading opinions.

By Malcolm Ryen on Fri, June 05, 2015 at 12:37 am

Elementary economics would explain that, as long as there is demand for ivory products, when you reduce the supplies of legal ivory, the price for illegal ivory stocks will rise, providing an incentive for more poaching, not less.

By Richard Sincere on Wed, June 03, 2015 at 5:39 pm

I have read Mr. Walker’s very well-written and researched book. But I can never agree to an ivory trade, because, the more I learn, the more I realize what sentient, highly intelligent and deeply feeling creatures elephants are.
  We are only beginning to realize the complexity of their communications, and their social networks.
    They are NOT a commodity - they are elephant persons. This aspect is missing from almost all discussion of ivory trade. We search for signs of intelligent life in the galaxy - but we have them here, and we are slaughtering them.  Now, when I see a pile of tusks, I see a pile of human arms.
  While this view may be seen as hopelessly unrealistic and naive, I daresay it is no more so then expecting natural mortalities to fill the China’s insatiable market.
  As WildAid says “When the buying stops, the killing can too”

By Brenda S. on Wed, June 03, 2015 at 11:46 am

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