The Raw and the Carved: Tusk throughput in an Ivory Industry

By Brendan Moyle 02/05/2014

One of the important areas to understand in the illegal ivory business, is just how long it takes to turn raw-ivory into carvings.  The crucial point alluded to before is that the rise in smuggling is generated by raw-ivory seizures.  Critics of the 2008 CITES decision to allow China and Japan to import raw-ivory argue this is being manifested in demand for carvings.  The rhetoric sometimes gets quite dense. Demand for ivory carvings is alleged to be insatiable etc.

To clarify a little, I don’t think anyone is arguing that over the long term, demand for ivory in China has not grown  This is linked to the growing affluence in the region.  The point of difference is whether demand exploded after the 2008 CITES decision.  I’m not seeing much evidence it has.

And again, we come back to the problem that while we see a lot of raw-ivory being poached and smuggled, we don’t see it appearing as carvings in domestic markets. The US plan to ban much of the domestic trade in ivory carvings is one of these odd responses to a problem nobody has actually seen.

So, not only have we been going around ivory carving factories and interviewing every carver they have on their output and the time it takes, we’ve been looking for other evidence as well.  One such line is the ivory-database the Chinese maintain for their legal ivory. The Chinese actually have a lot of data on this industry.  It is though, a challenge get access to this.  In this case, we have succeeded.

So what I have, is a list of every tusk that has been completely consumed in production in the Chinese ivory-carving industry.  I know where the tusk came from, its weight, its length, and when the factory recorded that the tusk was no more.  So it provides an estimate of the throughput of ivory.  It is restricted to the 2008 shipment, so all the tusks have the same starting point.  China also had a smaller reserve of ivory at the time of this shipment.

The numbers should still track the basic production throughput however.  They will just be lower than the actual quantity of carvings as some of these will come from tusks that are still being used up, and some from older reserves.

The first allocation of ivory to the 36-37 registered factories was in July 2009.  So as an introduction to the data, I’m just going to present the annual (aggregated) data.  (The pattern is a lot more interesting over the 1300 tusks)


This tells us a few interesting things.  First, there’s significant lags being shown.  While the first of this ivory was being allocated in 2009, none of the tusks are reported as being all used up as carvings until May 2010. In the short run, demand and supply in this market can be out of synch.  Supply is always going to be playing catchup.

The first year, 2009, was also when many factories were hiring and training new staff.  The 2010 data is actually only 7 months long.  This is an indicator of the time its taken to get up to speed.

The third point is that we’re not seeing a rapid or insatiable growth in demand.  The factories are actually using up tusks slower than the total allocations (13.78 tons out of 18).  If demand had taken off in the way many are claiming, then we’d expect to see these numbers trending up to match.

Taking into account that the 2010 is only 7 months long, then the totals we see are actually pretty stable.  At the peak, the Chinese factories are going through about 400 tusks averaging a bit over 6kg each.  This is far less than some containers that have been intercepted with 4 tons or more of raw ivory.

This also gives some information on just how big the illegal carving industry has to be.  There’s a lot of raw-ivory to carve and then get this into the market for sale.  The illegal industry would have to be an order of magnitude greater than the legal.  There would have to be a lot of illegal factories.  And nobody has found those.

There are outlets selling illegal ivory.  But this is a bit deceptive.  Most of what is available for sale are small stocks of small carvings.  These are relatively common.  Researchers can find them.  Chinese enforcement agencies can find them.  The problem is that lots of small carvings of ivory still don’t add up to a lot.  We see this already with the global seizure data.  Most seizures are of small carvings smuggled in say, suitcases.  By weight, these add up to very small quantities- they are dwarfed by the volume of illegal ivory.  A similar situation occurs in China.  About 80% of the carvings made by the legal industry are generic pieces less than 50g in size.  This adds up to about 5% of the total weight of ivory used.  15,000 carvings of 50g or less, may sound like a lot of ivory.  But in overall terms, it isn’t.

It seems less credible the raw-ivory is being turned over into carvings than it is being stockpiled for later use.




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