By Brendan Moyle 02/10/2016

One can always tell when the parties to the CITES convention are meeting, or just about to meet.  Numerous NGOs start promoting their views and solutions to the problem to the media.

It came as no great surprise to read this in today’s Stuff webpage

“A first-ever comprehensive investigation into the sale of ivory and rhino horn in Australian and New Zealand auction houses has found the trade is flourishing.

Across a nine-month period, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found 2,772 ivory items for sale at 175 auctions in 21 auction houses across the two countries.”

Seriously, does anyone believe that checking out auction houses is a “comprehensive investigation”?  It’s a bit over-sold.

Let’s get some perspective on these numbers.  A recent survey of items for sale in Hong Kong found roughly 31,000 items.  That sounds like a lot, but adds up to roughly less than 4 tons of ivory.  The output data we have from China shows that in 2013 they made around 25,000 carvings, adding up to about 4 tons of ivory.  85% of the carvings were less than 100g in weight. Much like the Hong Kong sales.  The number of items (2,772) we see for sale in these auction houses hardly supports the claim the trade is thriving in the region.  It’s likely to add up to a minute quantity of ivory.

“Despite the difficulty in distinguishing between legally sourced and illegally sourced ivory and rhino horn … auction houses provided an astounding lack of information regarding the provenance, authenticity and legality of these items,” said the IFAW report.”

Given the analysis of the illegal trade in ivory,  has found it is dominated by large shipments of ivory to Asian destinations, and that the interdiction rate for carvings in this region has been low and stable for years, it does seem unlikely auction houses are dealing in illegal ivory.  It is perfectly legal for pre-convention (CITES) ivory to be sold.  And remember, ivory is a very durable product.  That’s why some of our oldest prehistoric art comes from carvings of mammoth tusks.  It’s why people dig up mammoth ivory in Siberia.  Most of what we see for sale in mature markets- like the USA, or Australasia, or Hong Kong- comes from a large stock of legal carvings already present. These markets are largely served by injections of old carvings returning to the market and are kept stable by these sales.  These markets are not what illegal criminal enterprises are after.  With hundreds of tons of poached ivory (UNODC estimates 270 tons) leaving Africa annually,  the capacity of the legal market in this region to absorb a fraction of this is non-existent.

Given that no auction house has yet been implicated in the illegal trade of ivory, perhaps their measures to determine authenticity are adequate?

“According to IFAW, one African elephant is killed every 15 minutes, while fewer than 30,000 rhinos are estimated to be alive today.”

IFAW doesn’t really do any scientific research into the mortality rate from poaching in Africa.  This number comes from estimates of 35-40,000 elephants a year being poached undertaken by actual scientists.  This number isn’t according to IFAW.  It’s from people who go around collating elephant death data in many African countries.

“What was most significant was that 78 per cent of those items [in the 21 auctions] were purchased … so the market is there,” Keeble said. Her organisation is calling for an end to commercial trade.

“Once you put an economic value on ivory, it tells criminal poachers to continue to exploit animals.”

The strongest evidence we have is that the demand for illegal ivory has come from unscrupulous Asian investors following the Global Financial Crisis.  Unlike money in a Chinese bank or Stock Exchange, an investment in ivory has maintained or increased its value since 2008.  The criminals in China buying 4+ tons of ivory in a single shipment, don’t care if a 250g 50-year old Buddha figure is sold in Sydney or Auckland (see Chapter 4, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Wildlife Crime report)[1].  The other issue that is being avoided is that the legal trade international trade in ivory has been banned since 1990.  The 2008 agreement to sell some to Japan and China was accompanied by a 9 year moratorium (trade ban).  Perhaps the harsher lesson from this, is that killing the legal market in a product creates more business for illegal.


0 Responses to “No, the Ivory Trade in Australia and NZ is not “thriving””

  • My philosophy has always been:
    If you want to use an animal (or plant, for that matter…) resource, farm it.
    A controlled environment is far better than going out into the wild and hoping that you find the resource you want.
    There is obviously a market for ivory (mostly because it is illegal…), so farming elephants would be the sensible course of action. But no-one seems to want to do that.

    • The enthusiasm for giving wildlife an economic value in the conservation community is pretty low. While elephants are not particularly amenable to farming, there are other options. Natural mortality of elephants does supply a large quantity of ivory. There’s a reason the Southern African countries have sizeable stockpiles of the stuff. So its within the bounds of feasibility to satisfy Chinese and Japanese carving factories without resorting to lethal harvest, or farming.