Grand, empty gestures? What does destroying ivory accomplish?

By Brendan Moyle 08/11/2013

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 The destruction of the illegal market of the 80’s where ivory was laundered into the legal trade, has been replaced by far more menacing, well-organised and equipped conspiracies.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

0 Responses to “Grand, empty gestures? What does destroying ivory accomplish?”

  • I have asked the same on quiet a few comments areas but it seems no one want to answer and even though they were put up for public debate it seems because my comments were not along their desired trend I was asked to PLEASE be quiet. They took the article off their FB page. I then found Brendan’s articles with relief that the whole planet does not support this insanity. I sold jewllery for more than 20 years and I can tell you every tusk you burn puts the price up. It is not genius rather basic economics. It is alarming to many well intentioned people follow trends without any research or common sense. These article are the first I read that made good sense. I can only think need to be funded needs may be a conflict of interest when it comes to judgments. I am tired of hearing about how it is all China’s fault when the USA EU UK have a lot to answer for. It is just a deflection of the real issues. More misinformation to get the unaware to follow blindly whit out question of even basic things.
    Thank you for these great article and I hope someone challenges me or answers Brendan’s great question…..that has no answers…..yet……

  • I think what scare me most is if people were working together for a common goal it would not be so hard. NGO spread as much misinformation as USA loves to do. They are looked up to yet they seem to be very blind as to some of the causes world wide of what is happening. Political and world events directly effect animal conservation.

    US Africa
    Are USAID Gorilla Conservation Funds Being Used To support Covert Operations in Central Africa

    The Hidden War on Nature

    Washington’s criminal role in the Sri Lankan state’s anti-Tamil war

    Merchants of Death: Exposing Corporate Financed Holocaust in Africa

  • “dump a lot of ivory into these markets to depress prices”
    I think it would be better (from a long-term point of view) for the authorities (who-ever they be…) to use the seized ivory to set them-selves up as a “rival” illegal trader, under-cutting (but not by much) the “actual” illegal traders. They will then come looking for the “competition” (organised crime and all, don’t like competition), and get nabbed. It would be a long, slow, “deep cover” operation, but I think it would be a better method than simply pushing down prices.

  • @elephantrights

    I think we have a combination of things driving these reactions (like destroying seized ivory). One is the eruption in poaching which is persuading people to invent simple and direct policies they think will address it. The problem is that these are reactive, and not evidence-based or I believe, well though out.

    This policy-panic is being inflated by reports exaggerating the threat. It’s now common to see on social media, people claiming elephants will extinct within a decade. It’s not an environment where cool heads are prevailing.

    The other issue is one I agree with- the people advocating things like ivory-destruction are not well informed about economics. We’re making a leap of faith that these actions will affect demand for ivory.

  • @Shadowmind

    One of the problems now is the sheer quantities of raw ivory that have been shipped to Asia. If we take 25k-30k elephants as the annual illegal kill, that’s nearly 300 tonnes of ivory per year being exported. Most of that hasn’t been made into carvings and could sustain the illegal retail sector for years to come.

    I’m not sure the evidence points to the organised crime being very organised. It seems relatively easy for someone with no smuggling experience to enter (cf. Chen from Xiamen, who organised the import of 7 tons in 2011). I don’t think it mirrors the illegal drug cartels of the 80s.