Posts Tagged poaching

Royal Malaysian Police capture Nepalese wildlife criminal Brendan Moyle Feb 17

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INTERPOL in 2014 launched a coordinated campaign to arrest a number of criminals involved in wildlife crimes.  One of these criminals, a Rajkumar Praja,  involved in rhino poaching, has been apprehended in Malaysia.

Rajkumar Praja, the ringleader of a rhino poaching network in Nepal, is wanted to serve a 15-year sentence for rhino poaching and trading internationally in rhino horns. Nepali authorities requested a Red Notice, or international wanted persons alert, for the 31-year-old after he fled the country – INTERPOL 

One of the reasons wildlife crime networks have shown a lot of longevity, is the typically lower apprehension risks, and lower sentences handed out,  for wildlife crimes.  This is in contrast to the treatment of criminals engaged in say, drug-trafficking.  In economic parlance, it is unlikely that we have been operating at ‘optimal deterrence’.

Moves like this to increases apprehension risks will hopefully yield positive outcomes.  Nonetheless, there are still two issues that make law enforcement a challenge.  The first is that wildlife crime does not have a lot of barriers to enter.  The Chen case in Xiamen, in 2011, showed this for ivory.  Chen went from having absolutely no contacts in Africa, to a conspiracy that shipped 7 tons of ivory back to China.  These shipments occurred over a mere 6 months.  This was on the back of a single visit to Africa as a tourist.  Wildlife crime does not seem to need to large, organised criminal organisations we see with drug cartels.  In effect, wildlife criminals are easily replaced in the industry.

The second is that poachers may not react to increase enforcement by reducing crime. They can respond by coming back with bigger guns and more lethal force.  There’s a good reason why rangers are getting killed trying to protect African wildlife.  The criminals have armed themselves with more weapons and have little reluctance to use them.




Where is the poached ivory going? Brendan Moyle Nov 03

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One of the enduring questions we have with respect to the black-market in ivory, is where the raw ivory is going.  The somewhat glib answer is that it is being churned into carvings to be sold to East Asian (i.e. mostly Chinese) buyers.  This is regarded as glib as to date, evidence of this eruption in carvings for sale has not been observed.  Likewise, it glosses over the problem of where and how, this carving is taking place.

For instance, we know based on the tusk throughput in Chinese factories, they go through 28-30 tusks a month. Total.  That’s not each factory.  That’s the total throughput of all 37 factories legal factories in China.  If we take the estimate of 25,000 elephants being poached each year as a ballpark figure, that means somewhere in the region of 47,250 to 50,000 tusks are being supplied to the black market.  If you wanted to turn all that into carvings, you need an illegal carving system that can handle about 4,000-4,200 tusks a month.  As you can see, we are nowhere close to that with the legal factories. This is one of the reasons why some of us who research this black market think the speculative market in raw ivory dominates the other markets.  Nobody has found evidence of this presumably, massive but underground carving system.

One allegation is that the Chines legal factories are a source of these carvings.  The argument is that these factories acquire poached ivory and use it to make carvings.  The illegal ivory gets laundered.  This is not a very easy thing to test for.  Nonetheless, we have devised a way we think works.

Laundering occurs when poached ivory is used to make carvings in legal factories.  Deviations in throughput may indicate laundering.  The reason is there should be a stable base-line of throughput.  From 2009 the number of factories has remained fixed, the supply of raw ivory from legal sources has been stable, and the number of carvers has also been stable.  If the legal carvers are being diverted to make pieces out of poached ivory, the rate they can use up legal tusks will be affected.

Figure 1: Legal Tusk Throughput

vecm graph

What makes the estimation complicated is that the throughput of ivory depends on several factors. Large tusks are used up more slowly than smaller tusks.  Only very experienced carvers will use large tusks.  So these factors have to be built into the model.

There is also an error in the reporting dates. Chinese factories are required to report when a tusk they have been allocated has been consumed as an input.  Sadly they’re not required to say when they start using one (this means we have to use the rate at which tusks are used up as the main metric).  Tusks are reported as ‘used-up’ in batches. This causes regular under-reporting and over-reporting of tusks.

What we found is that the reporting cycle is linked to retail spending in China. Factories build up stocks of carvings, then supply these to sellers.  Retail spending on ‘gold, silver and jewellery’ in China is tied to reporting dates.

A Vector Error Correction Model is was selected to estimate the throughput rate of ivory.  This contains short-term and long-term relationships.

Our model uses four equations. It captures the reporting-date error.  It captures the different rates at which ivory is used.

The equations are ordered from small pieces (<1kg) as equation 1, through to large tusks (>10kg) as equation 4. The variable Y12 tests for a decline that might mean laundering has occurred.  This year appeared to have the biggest downturn based on an eyeballing of the graphs.

One way to represent these equations is as an impulse function.  We simulated the loss of carvers currently engaged using small (1-5kg) and standard (5-10kg) tusks as inputs.  We removed enough so that 100kg of throughput of these two categories is lost.  The motivation might be that these carvers have been assigned to (hypothetically) make carvings from illegal ivory.  The industry-model shows how this would be accommodated.  One of the big changes would be the reallocation of carvers making large tusks to accommodate the now slower throughput.  The throughput slows by about 160 kg, with the 1-5 kg tusks falling by 40, the 5-10kg tusks falling by 40 and the 10+ kg tusks falling by 80.  This is a nice way to illustrate that mucking around with carvers leaves quite a big and lasting footprint.

Figure 2: Impulse Function

impulse function


Importantly we find here no significant downturn in this Y12 period.

We conclude that the claim Chinese legal ivory factories are using (significant amounts of) illegal ivory to produce carvings is false.

It remains possible very small quantities of illegal ivory are being used.  Nonetheless, in aggregate the legal factories appear “clean”.  The results we note, do not extend to the retail sector.

Nonetheless, it provides indirect evidence that the speculative market explanation is a better fit for the data.  And it also implies that illegal ivory is much more likely to be channeled into an autonomous, illegal factory system.


To Dunedin! On an ivory quest! Brendan Moyle Oct 22

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Well, not exactly.


But on Friday, I will be at Otago University and giving a seminar on ivory black markets.  One topic I’m going to highlight is whether the legal factories in China (all 37 of them) are a significant source of illegal carvings.

The production problem is usually glibly ignored or assumed away.  But essentially, if you do think that it is the demand for carvings in East Asia (and mostly China) that drives the poaching, there is a production challenge.  The 37 legal factories in China go through around 23-23 tusks per month (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Monthly Tusk Throughput in China

tusk throughput

If we accept that 25,000 elephants a year are being poached for ivory, and this is fed rapidly into the market for carvings, then that’s over 4000 tusks a month that has to be carved into carvings.  If we go for some of the bigger estimates- 35,000 elephants a year- that means over 5800 tusks a month.  A comparison with what the entire legal system in China is managing is sobering.   That’s an enormous gap that has not yet been accounted for.

I think once again, we have to take on board the hypothesis that most of the illegal ivory isn’t being exported to be churned out as carvings. It’s feeding a speculative market that is stockpiling raw ivory.  And the drivers of that are not Chinese affluence.  The drivers are the perceived scarcity of ivory combined with the uncertainty in its supply.



Ivory Connections: Poaching and civil wars Brendan Moyle Aug 08

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As has been widely noted, elephant poaching in Africa has risen to very high levels- and once again is, threatening many populations of elephants.  The debate over the causes has not been entirely settled.  Some have advocated that this increase is a result of surging demand in East Asia (chiefly China).  As an explanation it doesn’t match a lot of what we have learned about this latest upsurge.

One credible cause of poaching is civil wars (and other collapses of civil order). Expenditures on parks and reserves takes a major hit, whilst desperate people seek food and livelihoods from these reserves.  And armed gangs try to cash in on what is there to fund more bullets and bombs to fuel the conflict.

The striking thing about the poaching upsurge is it is not uniform.  It is in fact, heavily concentrated in the Central African range states.  According to the IUCN elephant summit held in Botswana in December last year, it is running at around twice as high in the central African range states as the rest of Africa [1].  This is one of the clues we have, that the upsurge in poaching is a supply-driven event.

This can be shown a little more graphically.  How can we measure the ‘level’ of conflict in each of the range states?  Well, one way to do it is with refugees.  These are genuine refugees, rather than ‘economic’, and for humanitarian reasons, numbers are collected by the UN. If conflicts increase, then people tend to try to escape.  They become refugees.  And they do so with some alacrity.  It’s a pretty sensitive indicator.

So let’s look at the refugee numbers and the raw ivory intercepts.  Raw ivory becomes the indicator for poaching.  I’ve dropped the worked ivory out, because it is smuggled, raw ivory that is the chief export from range states.


The first thing that is really obvious is that refugee numbers in Central African range states completely dominate the rest of Africa. What can also bee seen, is that from the late 1990s to early 2000s, refugee numbers and poaching levels rose- then they seem stable up to around the 2008-09 period, and then they both take off again.

This tragically, describes a case of almost heavy cropping of elephants in this Central African region.  Which raises the next big question. What happens when these armed groups killing elephants run out in that region?  Will the poaching crisis burn out with the decimation of these elephants?  Or will they move to other regions of Africa.  We saw something very similar with Kenya.  It seems that if you want to limit losses to poachers, the first thing to do is ensure you do not have a common border with Somalia…cross-border poaching expeditions became common.

[1] UNEP, CITES, IUCN, TRAFFIC, 2013. Elephants in the Dust – The African Elephant Crisis. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal.


Ivory Crimes: Supply or Demand Shock? Brendan Moyle Apr 22

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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.

raw vs worked

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.

A CWP Photo




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?



Grand, empty gestures? What does destroying ivory accomplish? Brendan Moyle Nov 08


The decision by the US to destroy its stockpile of (6 tons) of ivory is being held up by many as a bold conservation measure for elephants.  This is a puzzle. Destroying ivory is hardly new. Kenya did it publicly in 1989 [1]. This was after their elephant population had plunged from 65,000 elephants to 17,000. Southern African countries who had stabilised or expanded their elephant populations under a regulated trade, regarded it as more of a PR stunt.


The situation with elephants has grown dire. This is not a new point. Once the large stockpiles of ivory accumulated over the 1980s ran down, poaching was always going to increase. Indications of this had set in by the late 1990s. We have been largely unable to stop this trend.

Graph 1: Raw Ivory Interdictions by Weight


Data from ETIS. Three-year Moving Average

It’s important to note that the graph above is based on interdictions. It is is not the total amount of ivory being trafficked. It is a sample, affected by enforcement effort and chance, of the illegal ivory trade. The trend however is transparent.

We also have a good idea of what is driving the poaching.  The increased affluence in Asia and especially China, is one powerful driver. Ivory has a long tradition of use in East Asia and this cultural dimension makes demand very ‘sticky’. Customary values plus rising incomes create a big demand pull.

There’s also the political instability factor. Ivory is being pumped out of some parts of Africa at a rate that appears in excess of annual consumption in Asia. Civil wars, the shock of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and corruption are helping to supply ivory in a way that’s divorced from final markets. Elephants are being ‘cashed up’ in the illegal market and it’s likely that a lot of it is being stockpiled.

This sadly also reflects another very important change. The era of the freelance, local poacher is over. It is the era of professional and armed gangs, sometimes with military ties (and equipment). The destruction of the illegal market of the 80′s where ivory was laundered into the legal trade, has been replaced by far more menacing, well-organised and equipped conspiracies.

Will the US destruction of its paltry ivory stocks make a difference to any of this? It seems unlikely. Chinese incomes aren’t going to be slowed by this. The guy shooting elephants on the savannahs won’t even be aware of it. Kenya did another big destruction effort in 2011. Poaching kept going up afterwards.

There are two risks though attached to these gestures. The first is it signals that ivory is becoming even more scarce. The signal may not be what the US intends. By signalling to criminal organisations ivory is becoming scarcer, the race to accumulate more in stockpiles may accelerate. I don’t know. It seems like an important question though to have settled before making these gestures.

The second risk is well, the ban could be the wrong strategy. Something devised to counter the black market of the 1980s may in fact, be redundant. A regulated trade may be the way forward. Again, I don’t know. I think anyone who does think they know what the solution is, doesn’t understand the problem so well. But it’s plausible, given that regulated trade did work in the Southern African countries.

So if we decide that we need to ramp up competition against the smugglers, that we need to say, dump a lot of ivory into these markets to depress prices, it’s going to be a challenge to do so, when we don’t that ivory to try.
Perhaps we need a few less grand gestures and a bit more evidence-based policy for conserving elephants?

[1] New York Times 1989

A Tale of Two Rhinos Brendan Moyle Nov 04

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One of the challenges in modern conservation is agreeing on what conservation is.  There is a widely held belief that conservation is about reserves, it’s about protecting wildlife and it’s about banning their use. But most wildlife doesn’t live in reserves.  Many endangered species are in developing countries. They don’t have a lot of resources to put into conservation. Corruption and weak institutions make it harder.


What this means is porting over a Western conservation management strategy to other countries hasn’t worked out so well. One might even argue that it doesn’t even work so well in NZ. We can’t conjure up enough resources to control the invasive pests that ravage our native ecosystems. Developing countries struggle to treat conservation as a money sink.

In practice, conservation means working with people with diverse values.  They won’t agree on what conservation means. For Inuit in Canada, conservation means being able to co-manage polar bears and hunt some. It works. Polar bear numbers have trended upwards. In Papua New Guinea, the estuarine crocodile is sustainably harvested. It works. Numbers have risen under this regime. This is a place where reserves and enforcement are to put diplomatically, challenging to implement. The industry and the local villagers agree on the need to conserve crocodiles, basically because they’re worth money. That works to curtail poaching and enhance habitat.

This conflict between what some people think conservation is, and what it actually is, is tragically illustrated with the two rhino species. The black rhino Diceros bicornis used to be abundant, with a range that extended up into the horn of Africa. There was still an estimated 60,000 black rhinos in 1960. Numbers have collapsed despite an international trade ban in 1976 and the use of an orthodox conservation approach.

Trends in Rhino Populations

Trends in Rhino Populations

Source: Michael ‘tSas-Rolfes

The white rhino has undergone the reverse trend (up until very recently). From very low numbers in the 1960s, numbers of white rhinos have overtaken black. The difference was a more encompassing conservation approach. There was a greater willingness to undertake translocations. Management was shared between the state, local communities and private owners.  In South Africa, 25% of the white rhinos are privately owned.  This included trophy hunting.  Again, while not everyone agrees that hunting has a place in conservation, and many find it abhorrent, the result is more rhinos.

The reason rhinos are in decline is poaching. This is now at catastrophic levels. Two to three rhinos on average, are killed each day. 2013 could see 1000 rhinos killed by poachers. Private game parks in South Africa are considering getting out of rhinos completely because of the security risks and costs.

The reason rhinos are poached are for their horns. The horns are largely keratin and grow back. This is partly why the dehorning experiments started in 1989 (with Namibia) failed. Nonetheless, as Biggs et al (2013) argue in the journal Science [1], the economics of farming rhinos stacks up well. Horn can be humanely and regularly shaved off the animal. This would get 8 times as much horn as a one off killing by a poacher. Here is a product we can supply, whose demand has remained resolutely high despite the trade-bans, without having to kill any rhinos. It’s worth debating if the current strategy is delivering what we want for rhinos, and whether trying something new is warranted.

[1] Biggs, D., Courchamp, F., Martin, R., Possingham, H. P. Legal Trade of Africa’s Rhino HornsScience 339 1038-1039 (2013).


Looking the wrong way: legal ivory market not linked to illegal Brendan Moyle Feb 12

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This piece has already appeared on the NZ Herald Opinion page.

My main concern here is to highlight that the legal market appears to be pretty well insulated from the illegal.


I visited China for a research project on the ivory trade in January. It took two years of groundwork first. China is not an easy place to get data from – you just can’t drop in and start investigating.

And, rather than gathering rumours and stories from the fringes of the legal market, which seems to be the case in many international media reports, my colleague and I got access to other parts of the supply chain. The evidence began pointing away from the legal market as a catalyst for the illegal trade of ivory.

Ivory Carving- Southern Style. The butterflies are also carved from ivory.


I’m a wildlife economist, but first a conservationist. Like all conservationists, I’m extremely concerned at the rate at which elephants are being poached in Africa, but it concerns me when I see inaccurate stories. You can’t fight the black market trade in wildlife unless you understand how it operates – and the legal ivory trade is not the right place to focus conservation efforts.

In a major ivory factory in Beijing, we looked at the workstations. There were 16 in all. In 1990, before the CITES ban on international ivory sales, the factory had 800 staff, but the ban decimated the legal ivory carving industry in China.

China legally purchased 62 tonnes from the existing ivory stockpile in 2008, and by that year there were only eight staff and one master carver left. Staff levels have since expanded to 16. Most were technicians in their third year of training. Depending on their complexity, pieces would take anywhere between two months and two years to complete.

By weight, about 90 per cent of the registered ivory is made into unique pieces with specific photo-IDs. The scope of the problem of resale of small generic pieces is unknown, but the legal trade is simply unable to absorb the tonnes of ivory being smuggled from Africa. The registration system tracks raw ivory through to the final product and cross-checks each stage for weight gains. Factories and shops are inspected regularly and sometimes covertly, several times a year.

Ivory prices depend on many variables, such as size and grade, the quality of the carving and the reputation of the carver. It’s impossible to detect claimed dramatic price rises for ivory. Prices are what we describe as very noisy. None of the suppliers we interviewed expect overall prices to rise. Other goods, like jade, are preferred for investment over ivory as they’re showing attractive price increases.

The legal ivory system in China is a small industry, with a productive output strongly limited by the lack of qualified carvers. It’s subject to monitoring and inspections that make laundering risky. It’s not a competitive market, as entry is restricted and firm numbers are low. This suits the incumbent firms as it inflates their prices and their profits.

They have no enthusiasm to expand output as this would cause prices to drop. The small size of the industry and the slow output cycle means they cannot absorb large volumes of ivory.

The legal market caters to a clientele of informed, repeat customers after quality pieces, which distinguishes it from the illegal market where we saw generally cruder and smaller carvings which could be pumped out by less skilled carvers, items of less value to serious collectors.

The ivory sale to China in 2008 put money back into elephant conservation in the four southern African countries. On-going trade may be sustained by natural deaths and culls in Africa. The legal market is insulated from the illegal market at several levels. Blaming the legal trade for elephant poaching is simplistic, wrong and a threat to the conservation gains the industry has yielded. It is also a perverse distraction because we need to focus on the real causes of poaching.

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