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Recent news from Kenya (BBC link) show that the elephant black-market is resurgent. This matches earlier studies which show that poaching rates are higher than in the 1980s.

Unlike the 1980s when many and varied NGOs campaigned to save the elephant, there are no similar campaigns today. Part of the reason may simply be that in the 1980s, there was a simple target. Conservation groups campaigned to get the legal trade in ivory banned. Kenya destroyed seized ivory in pictures that appeared in media all over the world. In 1989 CITES agreed to put elephant ivory onto Appendix I. This sacrificed the legal trade, even where sustainable, to save the elephants in Africa. The last point is important. Several countries in Southern Africa had increased their elephant populations during the 1980s. The penalty they paid for better managing their populations was to lose their export income.

Today it is hard to pin down a nice, simple policy solution. Despite that, a number of conservationists remain wedded to the idea that the irregular shipments of stockpiled ivory from Southern Africa to Japan (and lately China) are fueling demand. Hence, a similar drop in poaching to that in the early 1990s, could be experienced by preventing the minute, legal trade that occurs.

The reasons for the rise in poaching are easy to diagnose.

  • After poaching waned in the early 1990s, governments and law enforcement agencies relaxed their guard. The perception was that they had fixed the problem. This was matched by Western countries reducing their contributions to anti-poaching work.
  • Smugglers rebuilt markets outside North America and Europe, and began shipping in clandestine ways rather than ‘laundering’ the ivory into the legal stream.
  • Asian countries in South-East Asia, and especially China, grew more affluent. Ivory is a luxury product and rising incomes brought more people into the market.
  • Asian stockpiles ran out. When the international ban was enacted, Japan had an ivory-stockpile that would last about 10 years. Stockpiles in Hong Kong were probably similar. As these stocks became depleted, ivory prices rose to 3-4 times greater than the early 1990s. In Vietnam, ivory is now priced over $US1000 per kg.
  • Economic reforms in Asia reduced transaction costs in the black-market. It got easier to visit other countries, make connections with other criminal networks and just physically trade goods. China for instance, has three of the five busiest ports in Asia now.

What is not contributing to the poaching is the small, very irregular shipments of ivory from Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to Japan. If anything, these have probably replenished stockpiles and kept ivory prices lower than they would otherwise have been. Keeping prices low is good, as it deters smugglers.

The least useful analysis we see reported in the media is that none of the points above are deemed relevant to increased poaching. Instead we get the same myth being reported uncritically- the myth that somehow, by making a product available legally you just end up fueling demand for the illegal substitute. The answer is more mundane. Black market ivory is worth 3-4 times more than it used to. Poaching is resurgent because it’s got a lot more profitable again.