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In 2003 the chapter I wrote on wildlife trade[1] mentioned the illegal ivory market a few times. This was in the wider context of the conservation effects of bans. The chapter was based on a 2001 meeting in Cambridge University in September. I was unable to attend this meeting because, well, the 9/11 terrorist attacks stopped a lot of international flights at the time.

The (commercial) international trade in ivory was effectively banned at the 1989 Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species (CITES) meeting. Elephants were listed on Appendix I instead of Appendix II. An Appendix I listing does not permit commercial trade in the wildlife or their parts. It has no implications for domestic trade however. An Appendix II listing allows a regulated trade under a system of permits (and sometimes quotas).

There have been two one-off sales of stockpiled ivory to China and Japan since then. The demand for ivory products has not as far as we can tell, waned in these Asian markets. Rising incomes in China are if anything, leading to an increase in demand. The one-off sales are intended to reward those African countries with well-managed elephant populations. If you have elephants, then you accumulate tusks (from natural mortality, culls etc). The better you are at conserving elephants, the more there is, and the more tusks you accumulate. Cashing in those tusks can be a way to support this conservation. It’s also contentious. Many conservationists continue to support a tough, ban-the-trade strategy.

From the book chapter ten years ago:

The rationale for the ban was straightforward. The legal trade in ivory was providing poachers with a means of smuggling ivory into final markets in Europe, North America and Asia. Authorities and consumers were unable to distinguish poached ivory from legally obtained ivory. This gave poachers the least-cost way to market their product in overseas markets. Hence if the legal trade was sacrificed, poachers would not have this smuggling route available. The sacrifice did, however, give elephant populations a chance to recover p48

This is a view I share with some other conservationists. The 1989 ivory-ban was a temporary measure. It was going to buy time for elephants. That time could be used to implement better trade and management. Or we could blow the opportunity and let smugglers develop counter-measures.

Faced with a sudden rise in distribution costs, smugglers patiently developed alternative routes that were independent of the legal traffic. Instead of simply waiting and hoping for the ban in ivory to be lifted, new routes and new markets were developed p49-50

In a not very prescient observation, I noted that shipping containers were starting to be used to smuggle poached ivory. In December last year a shipment of 24 tonnes[2] was found in two such containers by Malaysian customs. Shipping containers are being interdicted that have ivory concealed in them. This is probably a function of the bulky nature of tusks. You need some way of moving a lot to make it economic.

Anyway, this is what we have seen happen. New routes have developed. New markets, especially in South East Asia and China have grown.

…Simple policy measures may work for a time but they end up being circumvented. Regulations rearrange costs and have flow-through effects to final markets. These market spill-overs spur participants to circumvent these costs …

The poaching crisis for elephants is now recognised to be as extreme as the 1980s.
I don't think my book chapter was very wide off the mark.

[1] Moyle, B. (2003). Regulation, conservation and incentives. In Oldfield, S. (ed). The Trade in Wildlife: Regulation for Conservation, Earthscan Publications Ltd., London & Sterling, VA. Pp. 41-51.
[2] This news item also employs the popular and erroneous urban myth that the trade in wildlife is about Traditional Chinese Medicines.