Posts Tagged smuggling

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 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




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?



Tiger Summit Preliminaries Brendan Moyle Nov 18


The latest Tiger Summit is going to begin in St Petersburg on the 21st of November. This has been heralded as yet another last ditch attempt to prevent the extinction of tigers in the wild. There may be no animal that has received more conservation attention than the tiger, for little actual gain.

The thing about tigers is that there are lots of meetings held regularly and lots of plans get formulated. In India, Indira Gandhi backed an ambitious recovery program called project Tiger back in the 1970s. That was a system of national reserves backed by rangers, all with the focus on sustaining tiger populations. Nonetheless, since the mid 1980s, global tiger populations have shrunk almost unabated. The twin pressures of habitat loss and poaching have been challenging to overcome. Like so challenging, we haven’t overcome them.

There’s probably be a lot of issues this meeting is going to bring up. A lot of these issues won’t be new. While there’s a lot of agreement about the drivers behind the loss of tigers, it’s been much harder to get agreement on any solutions.

One of the differences with this summit has been the continued involved of the World Bank and its Global Tiger Initiative in 2009. This gave some cause for optimism in the conservation community as it offered the hope that funding restraints would be loosened.  Nonetheless, thus did not mean that suddenly tiger conservation projects were being given a blank cheque. And the IUCN was pulled out of the Nepal meeting last year over differences in the ‘management style’ of the World Bank.  For me, that meant being unable to chair one of the sessions on the demand and supply of tiger parts.

So, what are we going to hear out of this summit?

Well, doubtlessly some NGOs are going to insist that poaching and smuggling can be controlled through better law enforcement. Despite the great difficulty we have with infiltrating poaching rings (often because they are based on ethnic and family associations, making outsiders very identifable), this remains a very dangerous assertion.

Tiger poaching and smuggling is near impossible to control through law enforcement. The reasons are:

1) Habitat- tigers and their poachers have ‘cryptic’  lifestyles in rugged terrain. Poachers are rarely caught and it can take years to identify them. They come from hunting cultures that are familiar with the terrain and habitat.

2) Tiger parts are traded in both domestic and international markets. An increased focus on the international side for instance, doesn’t address the domestic side. The Sumatran tiger for instance, is pretty much thratened by local poaching, not international.

3) Tigers are an infrequently smuggled good. There’s about 300 tigers a year (we think) that get poached. The parts get traded all over Asia. It’s not like the cocaine route from Colombia into Florida. There’s not a plane or boat arriving on a regular basis.  Tiger parts are moved infrequently and via many different routes. This makes the whole intelligence gathering to block them much harder.

4) We have appalling intelligence on the participants in the black market. This was brought home again this year at the CITES meeting.  Despite the palpable threat from poaching facing tigers, Governments have gathered very little intelligence on the organisations that poach and smuggle tiger parts.

5) The borders are very big. China’s southern border stretches from Vietnam to Pakistan. Some of Asia’s busiest ports are now in China.  International borders in Asia are crossed regularly by smugglers and poachers. It’s just too big. The USA can’t stop drugs and people moving across the border from Mexico and that border is a fraction of the size of these Asian borders.

So long as we think poaching and smuggling is a problem that can be fixed with better law enforcement, we ignore actually trying to understand these black markets and where they are truly vulnerable.  And it is a policy call that shuts down discussion of other options. This doesn’t serve tiger conservation at all.

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