The 25,000 elephant question

By Brendan Moyle 08/12/2013

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.