One of the unsettled issues with the surge in elephant poaching seen after 2008/9 is explaining why it took off. The scale represents a break from the past. It seems inexplicable in terms of what we understood the drivers of poaching were. These were basically either affluence in consumer markets (like Asia) or poor governance in African countries. Neither of these changed dramatically in the 2008/9 period.
One popular theory advanced by some NGOs and conservationists is that there has been a massive demand shock. It’s claimed demand for ivory has exploded in China after CITES approved the 2008 shipment of stockpiled ivory from 4 African countries to China and Japan. This explanation has a number of problems. The first is it’s hard to reconcile it with other events in this era like the Global Financial Crisis.
The second problem is that it doesn’t fit the actual picture of illegal activity we have. Using the data collated from the ETIS we can see that the illegal activity in worked ivory pieces is pretty stable. The harsh truth that while most seizures are of very small items of ivory, these seizures add up to a small total. If there had been a demand shock, we’d see the worked ivory following the same trend as the raw.
The second problem with the demand shock explanation is that these ivory items are simply not for sale. Contrary to what some NGOs may want you to believe, buying illegal ivory hasn’t become a national past-time in China. People aren’t joining queues to buy ivory. One thing we did in our last expedition was just eyeball the ID-cards for ivory-pieces for sale in registered retail stores. They’re still carrying stocks that are several years old. We used locals to see how easy it was to find certain ivory pieces for sale legally and illegally. The old chopsticks some small antique dealer may have under his counter, doesn’t actually add up to a lot of ivory. This is a point that has already been made by the CITES Secretariat. The numbers we’re getting out of China from a diverse group of organisations is just too low to reconcile with a demand explosion.
The other possibility is what we see with this rapid increase in poaching and raw ivory smuggling, is a supply shock. There are two important events that have occurred since 2008/9. The first is that Central Africa has got a lot less stable. One casualty of bitter civil conflicts is elephants. Spending on national parks and wildlife protection collapses, whilst money-hungry armed-groups try to cash in with poaching. That’s one supply-factor that has changed.
The second is that shipping costs after the GFC collapsed. Sending raw ivory from Africa to consumer markets for stockpiling got a lot cheaper. We’re not talking about say a 10 or 20% drop in costs. We’re looking costs that have fallen to less than a third what the used to be. Nearly all of the illegal activity in the graph above, comes from seizures of raw ivory in shipping containers.
These are major and important events that are inconsistent with the demand-shock explanation. Civil war in Africa isn’t going to an increase in demand in China. Neither is cheaper shipping costs. What we seem to have is a significant supply-shock that criminal organisations are taking advantage of to store more raw ivory in final markets- like Asia. We’re not seeing it for sale in the streets because it’s being stored and it’s likely not in their interests to be dumping lots of ivory into consumer markets.
One final piece of evidence is the time it takes to make a carving. Raw ivory hits a production bottle-neck because turning ivory into a carving is a slow process. Production is basically artisanal. One thing we explored in China in various factories was production time. To illustrate, the figure below, roughly 1 kg, would take an experienced carver about 2 months to complete, and an inexperienced carver 4 or 5 months. The throughput of raw ivory into carvings is not a rapid process.