The deadly ivory trade

By Brendan Moyle 30/05/2014

While I guess my lack of blogging of late, has been noticeable, I’ve been able to push ahead with a lot more research write-ups. And this has largely all been about the illegal ivory, especially the Chinese end.

The big conservation problem is that elephant numbers in the late 200os started to shrink as poaching became unsustainable.  If we look at the numbers from the mid 1990s then (Table1) it looks encouraging for a while.

Table 1: African Elephant Population Estimates[1]


Minimum Estimate
(Definite and Probable Population)

Maximum Estimate

(+ possible and speculative population)













Within these numbers the trend has not been uniform.  While elephant numbers were on the rise overall, there was also a large shift in distribution.  The Northern and Central range-states continued to lose elephants.  The Eastern and Southern range-states gained them.  The gains outweighed the losses, leading to a general increase.

This trend came to an end in the late 2000s.  Poaching levels switched to unsustainable around 2009.

Figure 1: Poaching Rates [2]

poaching rates

If we look at the characteristics of this with seizure, then another point becomes apparent.  It’s a raw-ivory phenomenon.

Figure 2: Seizure Data [3]

raw vs worked

The data we have out of China and elsewhere, is that this ivory isn’t being churned into carvings and sold at a rate rapid enough to absorb the raw ivory.  There’s still a lot of small pieces of ivory carvings for sale.  But lots of chopsticks and necklaces, don’t add up to a lot of ivory.  Nothing close to what is coming out of Africa.

So am at a point where I’ve got a working paper[4] ready. That takes a much closer look at the ivory smuggling and breaks it down into a lot more categories. And if we let the data do the talking we get the following results.

First, the swings in raw ivory seizures is strongly linked to instability in African range states.  The mess that Central Africa is in at the moment, is also taking a lot of elephants.  That’s where instability is erupted, and that’s been one of the biggest sources of ivory for the bad guys.

Second, the seizures of ivory are strongly linked to shipping costs, and this effect is strongest for large shipments (over 1000kg). People who are bringing some small pieces in a suitcase aren’t sensitive to shipping costs.  People who ship a lot of ivory in shipping-containers, are.

Third, interest rates are linked to large shipments.  Big shipments are what we might call investment grade.  It’s something you have to sit on, because dumping it all into the market is neither feasible (nor likely economic).

So this points to a scenario where three things happened around the 2008-9 period that drove this upsurge.  A lot of raw ivory was being offered for sale, at a time when shipping costs collapsed and criminal organisations desired bigger stockpiles (because interest rates dropped). And this may have created a negative feedback.  It is riskier to leave ivory on ‘live’ elephants for the criminal organisations because a rival might get it instead- as poaching escalates.  So stockpiling it out of Africa becomes even more appealing. And the race to get as much as you can, exacerbates the crisis.

In policy terms, it means the drivers of the poaching are really supply-based, not demand.


[2] UNEP, CITES, IUCN, TRAFFIC, 2013. Elephants in the Dust – The African Elephant Crisis. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal.

[3] Data from ETIS

[4] “The Raw and the Carved: Shipping Costs and Ivory Smuggling”


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