Only Legal Ivory Can Stop Poaching

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.

“How about no more ivory trade, and no more deaths of these intelligent peaceful creatures due to poaching?”

Comments like the one above, 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 killed for there to be trade in ivory. It is a false assumption.

Another false assumption is that banning the legal ivory trade will stop 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 studying the issue closely, I’ve come to the conclusion that a limited legal trade in ivory is likely to help elephants more than the current prohibitionist regime.

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 an overly simplistic, Western viewpoint founded in animal rights ideology. It inflicts questionable policies on African countries, with disastrous 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 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, without considering the alternative of regulated use and taxation accompanied by consumer education to lower demand, a strategy which has shown success in reducing tobacco use.

This prohibitionist approach is advocated by groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society of the United States. 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 recently wrote an article headlined, “There’s no such thing as a Sustainable Wildlife Trade.” Now, conservation organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund have joined forces with the prohibitionists.

photo of an elephant group in a grassland photo of a dead elephant, vultures attendingphotos Boyd Norton, flickr user Meaduva

This coalition mischaracterizes the situation to rally public opinion and high-level political support in Western governments for a policy opposed to what in past years was a holy grail – sustainable development.

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. The existence of legal ivory can be used to “launder” illegal ivory.

2. Corruption is so widespread that no system of legal trade could ever work.

3. Increasing ivory supply will only increase ivory demand, as demonstrated by the two “one-off” ivory sales from southern Africa.

4. The China 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. There are 34 legal factories and 130 legal ivory outlets in China. A relatively tiny amount of illegal ivory is mixed in with the legal ivory in these facilities and laundered. I estimate that about 99 percent of poached ivory is sold in illegal outlets, online, and through personal networks – no laundering is involved. Closing the 130 outlets and the 34 factories will simply drive some buyers into the black market system.

2. The corrupt trade seen today developed under an international trade ban regime beginning in the mid-1990s. 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 trade that confers benefits on rural people who live with wildlife. These 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.

The legal trade would be completely different than the existing corrupt one. Periodic auctions would be held under CITES supervision and marked tusks would be shipped directly from African government storerooms to Chinese government storerooms, avoiding all the points where bribing and laundering could occur. Maintaining the ban will only continue the corrupt illegal trade methods.

3. The 1999 and 2008 legal ivory sales did not stimulate demand. 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. Concurrently, the CITES vote in 2007 to prohibit future legal raw ivory sales (until 2016 at the earliest) caused the price of ivory to spiral upward. Speculators began stockpiling ivory, 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.

4. 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 want and can afford to buy. If one really wants to lower consumer demand, it is imperative that mainly very expensive ivory items are manufactured. This policy cannot be implemented with a black market. Researchers have shown that the illegal sector provides the cheaper end of the market, which is much larger than the more expensive legal sector. And it is supplied 100 percent by poached tusks. It is the demand for cheaper worked ivory that causes so much poaching. Closing the legal market will not make the black market disappear; if anything, it will grow larger. People opposing ivory trade seem to forget that elephants do die naturally. 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.

5. Would closing all legal ivory trade in China lower consumer demand? Unlikely. Most Chinese consumers already buy ivory on the black market knowing that the ivory is illegal. Why would closing the legal outlets change their ivory buying habits? They don’t shop in them now, so closing them would change nothing. Some of the consumers who shop in the legal outlets might stop buying ivory, but most would probably find illegal ivory, adding to elephant killing.

6. The latest round of ivory stockpile destructions began in Kenya in July 2011. I was there, and I was left wondering what message was being sent. Since 2011, ivory prices and elephant poaching have risen. The intended message was not received.

I believe that the prohibitionist ivory-trade policy has led to the elephant-poaching crisis and the deaths of 100,000 elephants in three years. It could have been avoided with a legal system of raw ivory supply to China. It is not too late to begin one.

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.

For an opposing view, read what Elizabeth Bennett has to say.

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