The Missing Ivory Puzzle

By Brendan Moyle 04/02/2014

Poaching levels of African elephants have surged to an appalling level.  Since 2007 the illegal traffic in ivory has more than doubled [1].  By 2011 the numbers of elephants killed annually was estimated to be 25,000 animals [1].

The increase in poaching is reflected in the seizure rates of raw ivory.  This seizure metric is supported by evidence from shrinking wild populations and collation of kill reports [1],[2].

Figure 1: Raw Ivory Seizures

figure 1

The challenge is to explain this dramatic surge in seizures.  Why are over 20,000 elephants now being poached?  Poaching levels accelerated in the late 2000s and the estimated volume of ivory trafficked has greatly increased.  Has demand for ivory in a short space time increased by perhaps over double?

A popular view is the 2008 sale of ivory to China triggered a leap in demand for carvings [3],[4].  Nonetheless there is little evidence that demand and consumption has risen to match the volumes of ivory being smuggled [5].

“…The Secretariat saw little evidence of sufficient demand and consumption that might drive the indisputably significant smuggling levels. Surveys by NGOs, whilst wider-reaching that those of the Secretariat, also seem to show demand levels below what is being illegally-harvested and smuggled”. CITES Secretariat, n22.

Another possibility is that it is being stockpiled for speculative motives.  Ivory is extremely durable.  It can be, and is, easily stored.

Figure 2: Tusks in Storeroom of Chinese Factory.  Buckets of water are used to maintain humidity

Figure 3: Tusks from South Africa. Tusks come in 4 quality grades

One of the big obstacles to turning ivory into carvings for sale is the carving process. The process is still artisanal.  Carvings aren’t produced in some assembly-line process.  It is still done by one carver, working usually by themselves.  In China the system is based on apprentices learning how to carve ivory from more skilled carvers (masters) until they qualify.  Factories are still small scale.

Figure 4: Ivory Carver. Electric tools were adopted in the 1990s.

Figure 5: Individual Workstations at a Factory

While we don’t know how big the unregistered (and illegal) carving industry is in China, we know the legal goes through about 4-5 tons of elephant ivory annually.  Numbers thrown out for the unregistered are 20 to 30 tons.  Given seizures in China, that’s probably in the right order of magnitude.  There hasn’t been a massive increase in the number of registered retail stores (136 to 145).  The quantities of ivory seized from illegal sellers haven’t been trending up.  This is why the CITES Secretariat made the earlier observation.  Yes, demand in China has gone up and that’s part of a long term trend based on increasing affluence.  But it hasn’t gone up by a level that accounts for all the ivory being smuggled.

We know have annual seizures of approximating 40 tons of raw ivory.  We don’t know how much is getting through but presumable a lot more.  Even a very conservative estimate would give us- for argument sake- an extra 100 tons every year.  It’s straining credibility to claim all of this is being churned out as carvings for sale in East Asian markets.  The production process is far too slow to absorb these quantities.

Figure 6: Apprentice Carver

If you want to expand output, you need to hire and train new carvers.  Officially it takes about 4-5 years to get past an apprentice status. Unofficially an apprentice can be carving simple but commercially valuable items in about 2 years.  Again, this doesn’t suggest production can rapidly and easily expand to meet the influx of ivory.

This suggests the popular view is basically wrong.  It’s more likely that most of the smuggled ivory is being stored for speculative reasons instead.

All figures above taken by me during research in 2013.  Full-sized versions can be obtained for media purposes.

[1] CITES, IUCN/SSC and TRAFFIC International., 2013. Status of African elephant populations and levels of illegal killing and the illegal trade in ivory: A report to the African Elephant Summit December 2013. Available from

[2] Underwood, F.M., Burn R.W., Milliken, T., 2013. Dissecting the Illegal Ivory Trade: An Analysis of Ivory Seizures Data. PLoS ONE 8(10), e76539. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076539.

[3] IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), 2012. Making a Killing: A 2011 Survey of Ivory Markets in China. IFAW, Yarmouth Port.

[4] Rice, M., 2012.  Legal ivory trading severely undermines elephant conservation. The Ecologist 8 November. Available from

[5] CITES Secretariat., 2010. Monitoring of Illegal Trade in Ivory and Other Elephant Specimens.  Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora, 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, Doha (Qatar), 13-15 March.  CoP15 Doc. 44.1 (Rev. 1).