By Brendan Moyle 22/10/2015

The publicity the illegal trade in ivory gets is at the moment, running high.  By way of background, the estimated numbers of elephants being illegal killed in African range states, ranges from 25,000 to 35,000 a year.  That means- roughly- there is about 250-350 tons of raw ivory being harvested by poachers annually.  The average weight of a tusk is 5kg.  Elephants generally have two of them.

Part of the narrative that is ‘out there’, concerns the destination and use these tusks are being put to.  There are two narratives that are popular, appear regularly, but aren’t as well-founded as we might think.  One of these is the terrorism narrative.  This holds that ivory poaching has lifted in a response to rebel and terrorist groups, seeking funding for their nefarious deeds.  There are however, sufficient reasons to want to combat terrorism or nasty rebel groups, without resorting to wanting to save elephants.  Elephants have also, always been poached to help fund such operations (e.g. RENAMO in Mozambique smuggled poached ivory into South Africa for export in the 1980s). Nonetheless, the basic problem is there isn’t actually a lot of elephants left in those areas the bad guys are operating in.  The revenue the bad guys are getting from poaching elephants is a lot less than you might think.

Consider the following case reported in the National Geographic.

Seleka rebels had a stock of about 300 ivory tusks that they sold, which enabled them to get the supplies that helped them overthrow President François Bozizé in CAR,” Ongwen told African Union forces, according to his debriefing. Ongwen said Kony’s plan is to obtain as much ivory as possible “for his future survival should he not be able to overthrow the government of Uganda.” Source: How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa

300 tusks might sound like a lot. But a back of the envelope calculation puts that at probably 1.5 tons.  These guys are at the start of the supply chain, so get the least payment for the ivory.  So maybe $US50 per kg.  So we’re looking at $US40,000 to $US50,000.  That’s not a lot of money to be throwing into a campaign to overthrow a government.  It is in fact, much less than the average house price in Auckland.  I’m not sure over-throwing a government is really that light on the finances.

The other narrative is the small carvings.  While I think the consensus has broadly shifted to accepting that most ivory is being stored for speculative reasons- in its raw form- the ‘small carving’ destination hasn’t died.  In a recent report, the determined Martin Esmond and Lucy Vigne catalogued the number of ivory items for sale in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has the most items of ivory for sale in the world. Almost 31,000 carvings were found for sale. This may seem like a lot, but two qualifiers need to be made. First, many of these are older pieces. Hong Kong has been a centre of ivory-carving production and sale for many years.  Ivory is also very durable. A lot of what we see for sale is older pieces re-entering the market. It’s not coming (mostly) from new ivory being smuggled out of Africa.  The second point is almost all of these pieces are small. Bangles, chopsticks and the like. Roughly 90% of the pieces are items that would be less than 100g, or even 50g.  In short, the biggest market for ivory carvings in the world, has roughly less than 2 tons of ivory for sale. Much of it predating the CITES ban.  It is again, obvious given the scale of what is being exported (maybe 350 tons of new ivory every year) that these carvings aren’t soaking up much of this. In short 31,000 items looks impressive…until you work out the actual weight of the items being sold.