Posts Tagged china

Excellent elephant conservation blog by Daniel Stiles Brendan Moyle Sep 16

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Long-time elephant conservationist Daniel Stiles has an excellent blog at National Geographic on elephant conservation and the ivory trade.  I think everybody who is concerned with conservation policy and elephants should read it.

On the 80′s poaching crisis-

Tragically, the rising calls for an ivory trade ban increased poaching because East Asian dealers and factories decided to stockpile for future use. The two fed each other in a positive feedback loop—increased poaching, increased calls for control, leading to more poaching to stockpile, ad infinitum until the ban

On the current situation

It was not only Chinese consumer interest in carved ivory that sparked the poaching crisis beginning in 2008-09. Investors, a.k.a. speculators, also became interested in raw ivory—tusks. After anti-trade NGOs succeeded in forcing a nine-year moratorium on proposals for future legal ivory sales from southern Africa at the CITES Conference of the Parties in 2007, unscrupulous ivory dealers saw that there was even more money to be made from poached tusks, because uncertainty of supply fuels speculation.

I’ve added my emphasis to the last statement.  When we create uncertainty about future supply, the bad guys respond by ramping up poaching to stockpile ivory.

On the solution- a regular, secure ivory supply from natural mortality etc

While no exact figure can be put at present on how much ivory would be available from stockpiles, natural mortality and PAC combined, I am confident that a minimum of 60 tons of legal ivory could be exported from Africa annually for at least ten years, without a single poached tusk needed. During this ten-year period, intense demand-reduction campaigns can be mounted so that renewable resource ivory from natural deaths and PAC can supply demand sustainably.

I recommend everyone read this piece.

The Missing Ivory Puzzle Brendan Moyle Feb 04

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Poaching levels of African elephants have surged to an appalling level.  Since 2007 the illegal traffic in ivory has more than doubled [1].  By 2011 the numbers of elephants killed annually was estimated to be 25,000 animals [1].

The increase in poaching is reflected in the seizure rates of raw ivory.  This seizure metric is supported by evidence from shrinking wild populations and collation of kill reports [1],[2].

Figure 1: Raw Ivory Seizures

figure 1

The challenge is to explain this dramatic surge in seizures.  Why are over 20,000 elephants now being poached?  Poaching levels accelerated in the late 2000s and the estimated volume of ivory trafficked has greatly increased.  Has demand for ivory in a short space time increased by perhaps over double?

A popular view is the 2008 sale of ivory to China triggered a leap in demand for carvings [3],[4].  Nonetheless there is little evidence that demand and consumption has risen to match the volumes of ivory being smuggled [5].

“…The Secretariat saw little evidence of sufficient demand and consumption that might drive the indisputably significant smuggling levels. Surveys by NGOs, whilst wider-reaching that those of the Secretariat, also seem to show demand levels below what is being illegally-harvested and smuggled”. CITES Secretariat, n22.

Another possibility is that it is being stockpiled for speculative motives.  Ivory is extremely durable.  It can be, and is, easily stored.

Figure 2: Tusks in Storeroom of Chinese Factory.  Buckets of water are used to maintain humidity

Figure 3: Tusks from South Africa. Tusks come in 4 quality grades

One of the big obstacles to turning ivory into carvings for sale is the carving process. The process is still artisanal.  Carvings aren’t produced in some assembly-line process.  It is still done by one carver, working usually by themselves.  In China the system is based on apprentices learning how to carve ivory from more skilled carvers (masters) until they qualify.  Factories are still small scale.

Figure 4: Ivory Carver. Electric tools were adopted in the 1990s.

Figure 5: Individual Workstations at a Factory

While we don’t know how big the unregistered (and illegal) carving industry is in China, we know the legal goes through about 4-5 tons of elephant ivory annually.  Numbers thrown out for the unregistered are 20 to 30 tons.  Given seizures in China, that’s probably in the right order of magnitude.  There hasn’t been a massive increase in the number of registered retail stores (136 to 145).  The quantities of ivory seized from illegal sellers haven’t been trending up.  This is why the CITES Secretariat made the earlier observation.  Yes, demand in China has gone up and that’s part of a long term trend based on increasing affluence.  But it hasn’t gone up by a level that accounts for all the ivory being smuggled.

We know have annual seizures of approximating 40 tons of raw ivory.  We don’t know how much is getting through but presumable a lot more.  Even a very conservative estimate would give us- for argument sake- an extra 100 tons every year.  It’s straining credibility to claim all of this is being churned out as carvings for sale in East Asian markets.  The production process is far too slow to absorb these quantities.

Figure 6: Apprentice Carver

If you want to expand output, you need to hire and train new carvers.  Officially it takes about 4-5 years to get past an apprentice status. Unofficially an apprentice can be carving simple but commercially valuable items in about 2 years.  Again, this doesn’t suggest production can rapidly and easily expand to meet the influx of ivory.

This suggests the popular view is basically wrong.  It’s more likely that most of the smuggled ivory is being stored for speculative reasons instead.

All figures above taken by me during research in 2013.  Full-sized versions can be obtained for media purposes.

[1] CITES, IUCN/SSC and TRAFFIC International., 2013. Status of African elephant populations and levels of illegal killing and the illegal trade in ivory: A report to the African Elephant Summit December 2013. Available from

[2] Underwood, F.M., Burn R.W., Milliken, T., 2013. Dissecting the Illegal Ivory Trade: An Analysis of Ivory Seizures Data. PLoS ONE 8(10), e76539. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076539.

[3] IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), 2012. Making a Killing: A 2011 Survey of Ivory Markets in China. IFAW, Yarmouth Port.

[4] Rice, M., 2012.  Legal ivory trading severely undermines elephant conservation. The Ecologist 8 November. Available from

[5] CITES Secretariat., 2010. Monitoring of Illegal Trade in Ivory and Other Elephant Specimens.  Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora, 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, Doha (Qatar), 13-15 March.  CoP15 Doc. 44.1 (Rev. 1).

The 25,000 elephant question Brendan Moyle Dec 08

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Poaching levels for African elephants have now accelerated to a point where about 25,000 are being killed a year.  The population in Africa is projected to decline by 20% in the next decade.  This is starting to get people very worried.

The illegal trade in elephants has several important features.  The first is that there is a separation between final consumers of carvings and poachers who procure the tusks.  There is a long supply chain with many parties along the route.  And importantly, many of these act strategically.  They’re thinking about the future, where demand is going and what effect enforcement is going to have.

The second feature is that ivory isn’t consumed in its raw form. It has to be transformed into something of value by carvings.  This process isn’t instant.  For an elaborate and large carving like a Guangzhou dragon-ball this can take months.  The number of skilled carvers is limited and the tools used to carve ivory aren’t sophisticated. There’s a limit to how much can be transformed into carvings.


The third feature is that ivory is durable.  It can be stored for long periods without deteriorating. This may require some environmental safeguards.  In the dry air of Beijing for instance, humidity levels have to be increased.  But other than that, tusks can potentially last for years.  This is why many governments have stockpiles.  Another point is the bad guys have stockpiles too.

One way to look at the illegal trade is to break the seizures down into different categories.  Seizure data has been accumulated globally as part of the ETIS since 1996.  While the weight of seizures is often aggregated, this masks some important differences.  Some guy smuggling a small piece of raw ivory in his suitcase, isn’t the same as the criminal conspiracy shipping four tons of tusks in a container.

What I’ve done here is taken the ETIS seizure data for raw ivory (by weight) and divided it into four categories.  These are the seizures up to less than 10kg (Raw1), the seizures from 10kg but less than 100 (Raw2), the seizures from 100kg but less than 1000, and the seizures that are more than 1000kg.  This isn’t the total amount of ivory being illegal trafficked.  It is a sample based on seizures. I’ve also expressed the data as a two-year moving average to iron out a little volatility.

Raw Ivory Seizures


The data graphed above is also stacked so that the top line will measure the total ivory seized while the other lines break it down into proportions.  There were no big seizures in 2007-2008.

What can we see?

Well, the small seizures (less than 10kg) have been pretty stable. They haven’t moved.  The problem facing elephants isn’t the small stuff coming in as suitcases.  These make up the majority of the actual seizures by a negligible amount of the illegal ivory.  This also serves as a useful control. If the increase in recorded seizures was simply down to better reporting and better enforcement, this ought to have increased in line with the other categories.

The second point is really that the big seizures drive the trend. The increase in illegal ivory being trafficked is down to one category getting bigger.  This is the stuff that’s more than 1000kg. It’s the stuff that’s several tons in a shipping container from East or West Africa. We can see that’s taken off from around 2008.

This actually generates an important question. Why is it 25,000 elephants and not 10,000 elephants? The legal demand in China for ivory is about 4 tons per year.  The illegal demand is (we think) much higher. But 10,000 elephants gives (back of the envelope calculation) about 100 tons of raw ivory a year.  25,000 elephants gives 250 tons. It doesn’t seem plausible that this could be absorbed by the markets in China- nor that the legal and illegal factories could transform it into carvings fast enough.

This is a strong indicator that ivory is being hoarded at the moment.  This tells us the bad guys are banking on the US government and many other conservation organisations being wrong. They’re betting on ivory still being in demand in the future and at higher prices. This is kind of scary. I tend to the view that the guys involved in the illegal market have pretty good knowledge of the market. I don’t have the same confidence in the conservation organisations claiming demand is going to decline with stockpile destruction.  If the bad guys are right, destroying legal stockpiles just makes their hoards more valuable. It affirms the poaching spree was the right strategy for them.




Ivory Bust in HK & a question for the economists Brendan Moyle Nov 13

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It’s interesting holding an elephant tusk for the first time.  You’re not quite sure what to expect. But the first thing you notice is that they’re heavy, heavier than I expected. This aspect distinguishes elephant ivory from other wildlife products.  It’s heavy, and it’s going to take up space.  This has to affect the smuggling techniques.


Last month there was another bust of smuggled ivory in Hong Kong.  There were 189 tusks with an average weight of 4kg each.  The origin of the shipment was (ironically) the Cote d’Ivoire.  West Africa continues to play a dominant role as an export centre of poached ivory.  This was the third major bust by Hong Kong customs this year.  The common denominator is that they’re all shipped, concealed, in containers.

The novel aspect of this shipment is the conspirators were trying to spread their risks this time. Rather than the tusks being on one ship, they came in containers on three different ships.  This suggests the effect of several big busts in late 2012 and continuing to 2013 is increased wariness.

Of the illegal wildlife products I’m familiar with, containers are a technique that I think, specialised for ivory. I can’t think of any other wildlife product that relies so heavily on containers.  So, aside from I think firearms, here’s a question for the economists (or anyone else who knows).  Is there any other illegal product that depends as much on shipping containers for distribution as ivory?



New illegal shark-finning tactic Brendan Moyle Nov 10

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Historically NZ has banned the finning of live sharks, and looks to be set to eliminate the practice entirely. This is in line with other countries.  The United Nations recommends a ‘fins naturally attached policy’ which would require vessels to keep the whole shark. Interestingly, anti-shark-fin campaigns are also springing up in Chinese social media (like Weibo). The custom is under pressure within as well. It has been banned at official banquets in Hong Kong and some mainland provinces.

Nonetheless, demand remains high enough to keep shark populations under threat.  The point is that it is this specific fishing practice- finning- that is illegal.  Many shark species are still fished legally in New Zealand and elsewhere.  The regulations against finning thus distinguish between catching sharks for human consumption, and finning specifically.  Fins for instance, must be ‘naturally attached’ to the body, as per the United Nations recommendation.

The challenge with any environmental regulation is keeping up with the ingenuity of the criminals.  Costa Rica has identified a method illegal shark-finners are using to comply with the regulations. This leaves a band of skin connecting the fin to the spine, and the rest of the animal is discarded.

Shark Fins via Interpol Press Release

Shark Fins via Interpol Press Release

This has led INTERPOL to issue a Purple Notice to members to alert them to the new practice.  Purple notices are used by INTERPOL  to seek or provide information on modi operandi, objects, devices and concealment methods used by criminals.  This is the second Purple Notice in fisheries to have been issued to member countries.


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