The next project: Tracking tusk throughput

By Brendan Moyle 07/09/2014

While I think the evidence points to the volumes of poached ivory being sent to Asia is being stockpiled, others are convinced otherwise.  There is a theory that this poached ivory is being made into carvings to be sold to unscrupulous consumers.  One potential pathway for this is the legal factories.  The legal factories (36 of these) could be using their labour and skills to be making carvings from poached ivory.  Cases like that involving Chen from Xiamen raise such suspicions. Chen spent $US3m to purchase 7 tonnes of illegal ivory from Africa.

Nonetheless, it is unreliable to ask factory owners if they are using illegal ivory.  They have little incentive to tell the truth. So here’s the next idea. If legal factories are making a lot of carvings out of illegal ivory, this must impact their production of legal carvings.  One of the senior carvers we interviewed at the Beijing ICF was working on a 20kg tusk at the time. It was going to take him 12 months to complete he thought.  In the previous 12 months he’d finished two 5 kg tusks.  If legal carvers are spending their time carving illegal ivory by the ton, we should see this affecting their legal output.  It should be slowing down.

Well, to date none of the legal carvers we’ve interviewed has let slip they did an extra few hundred kilograms of illegal ivory when nobody was looking.  What we do have is the data on the 1300 tusks that have been used up in the legal factories from 2009-January 2014.  The throughput of these tusks should give a clue.  If there are periods when legal output slacked off to make illegal stuff, this would be picked up as a change in the throughput.

While this sounds easy in theory, in practice it is more challenging.  Factories go to to the Chinese database when tusks are used up. They report this date.  Or rather they report the date they declared the tusk used up.  They tend to do this in batches, along with registering carvings for retail sale.  This batch-reporting effect means that we can get a lot of ivory in one month used up, and very little for the next month or two.  Eyeballing the data suggests they like to time these batches for prior to the Chinese New Year (a moving target) or before the quotas are determined.  The annual quotas of ivory are determined in July and there may be an incentive to report many used up before then, to convince the committee to allocate the factory more ivory.

I’ve broken the tusks into 4 categories based on the rate they tend to get used up.  It takes much less time for a piece under 1 kg to be used up, than for a 20kg tusk afterall.  First looks at the data are informative.

vecm graph


Essentially there is no inexplicable declines.  Where there are periods of few reported tusks being consumed (late 2012 and mid 2013 for instance) these are bounded by quite high reported levels of tusk depletion.  The ebb and flow is not significant.

It looks- tentatively at this stage- as if tusk throughput has been stable over this period.  This would indicate that the illegal ivory entering China is not being channeled through the legal factories.