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 . 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
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 The destruction of the illegal market of the 80’s where ivory was laundered into the legal trade, has been replaced by far more menacing, well-organised and equipped conspiracies.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?