By Brendan Moyle 24/10/2019

A discussion document on our TIES legislation was introduced by the Conservation Minister recently. This Act is the main tool we use to as a party of the CITES treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species 1973). The motivation for the proposed changes clearly comes from the dramatic decline in the elephant populations since 2009, generated in large part by poaching for ivory.

CITES and by extension TIES deals with the international trade in endangered species parts. Nonetheless, recent years have seen a push for some countries to ban the domestic trade in ivory as well. China for instance, closed its domestic market in the beginning of 2018. Hence the Government is considering what to do also. Actions range from a complete ban through to allowing some limited and regulated trade, to possibly doing nothing at all.

I’m including the content of my response to this discussion document below:


Proposed changes to the Trade in Endangered Species (TIES) Act 1989


Before I comment on the proposed changes I would like to outline my qualifications and motivation. My background is in zoology and economics. I have been an active researcher on wildlife trade issues for over two decades. In the last decade I have been increasingly focused on illegal wildlife trade. This includes work on the black market in tigers, followed by active research into ivory smuggling and the legal and illegal markets for ivory in China. I am also involved as one of the primary investigators into a long-term project looking at the market for Asiatic black bear parts in China. I am also researcher into the trade in crocodilian parts albeit that has slowed down in the past. I have original research published on the illegal trade in tiger parts and elephant ivory.

The organisations that have engaged my expertise on wildlife trade include the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the Chinese State Forestry Administration (now the State Forestry and Grasslands Administration) and IUCN Species Survival Commission. In the 2016 UNODC report on global illegal wildlife trade, I was one of just 12 international experts (and the only New Zealander) consulted.  I am also a member of the IUCN SSC Crocodilian Specialist Group and the Bear Specialist Group.

The comments I make represent my own views, based on my own expertise in this area. They are not the views of Massey or any organization I have worked with.

The Trade in Ivory

Domestic ivory markets are only supposed to be closed down if their presence represents a threat to wild elephant populations. New Zealand’s ivory market is not by any reasonable measure, a threat. It is too small and does not traffic the items that are a threat to wild elephant populations.

New Zealand seizes very little ivory items on an annual basis. The discussion document supplied mentions 124 items sized at the border since 2008. Whilst the report does not mention the weight, in similar cases overseas these are typically curio-sized items. Most such items trafficked are less than 50g each. While the NZ total doubtlessly includes some heavier items, the level of trade is well below what we observed in shops in China and Hong Kong. The amount of ivory seized in the last decade could easily from a single elephant.

The global black market in ivory is dominated by large shipments of raw ivory. The surge in elephant poaching picked up in 2009 has been characterized by shipments over 1 ton, moved in shipping containers. These raw tusks experienced a surge in demand after the GFC as unscrupulous investors looked at acquiring assets that would keep their value, or grow. With approximately 200 tons of ivory being smuggled to East Asia annually, almost all is being stockpiled as an investment good (akin to buying gold bars). These tusks are not entering the markets for carvings as these are too small in comparison. At its peak, the Chinese domestic, legal ivory market was producing around 4 tons a year of carvings. According to the ETIS database, there has been barely any movement in seizures of worked ivory in the last two decades (averaging very approximately 4 tons a year).

With carving markets and raw-tusk investment markets operating largely independently, there has been little impact on poaching and smuggling rates since the Chinese shut down their domestic ivory market at the end of 2017. In 2019 Hong Kong has sized a 2 ton shipment of raw ivory, Vietnam 9 ton and 3.5 tons, Singapore has also seized almost 9 tons.

I mention these numbers because they highlight just how insignificant our ivory trade is, and how it deviates from the form and destination being utilized by international conspiracies. The bad guys really do not care about New Zealand.

With ivory also being a very durable good the number of items available that predate the CITES convention or have been produced legally since then is also immense. We cannot presume the few curios and vintage pieces that are traded here are from poached animals. Symptomatic of this is the fact that many seizures reported in NZ are a result of permitting issues, not smuggled items. They are legacy products.

One of the challenges to regulation are products that contain some only ivory. This is not limited to musical instruments.

My recommendation is that the current NZ regulations on ivory trade do not need changing. Any regulatory system will create costs that lead to no appreciable conservation gain. Sometimes as much as we want to help conservation, doing nothing is sometimes the best option. And the whole peer-to-peer marketing that we see emerging in other countries makes the regulatory exercise largely futile. It is unnecessary to make a costly ‘moral’ stand on this issue as no other country operates under the misapprehension we are tolerant of illegal wildlife trade. It is a meaningless and empty gesture, fraught with regulatory problems identified in the discussion document. Our border-protection systems are effective and likely make a material contribution (if very small) that can’t be matched by domestic trade measures.  If our objective really is to support international efforts to protect elephant populations from poaching, paying for salaries of rangers in range states would do far more than our efforts here.

Travel with Personal Effects

The only taxa I’d like to comment on here are crocodilian products. The CITES recommendation for crocodilian personal effects is that countries should allow up to 4 items of personal effects, without a permit being required.

The discussion document reports that most seizures of crocodilian products apparently come from farms. Farms are as a general rule not a threat to wild crocodile populations. The crocodile farms of Papua New Guinea and Australia are sustainable and contribute to crocodile conservation. Population trends for Crocodylus porosus in these range states in the wild have shown sustained increases in wild populations.

The most endangered crocodilians in the Asia-Pacific (Indian gharial, tomistoma, Chinese alligator, Philippines crocodile) are not being farmed for their skins. Most of these species are not being farmed at all. In the case of Crocodylus siamensis there is almost no wild population to speak of.

In many cases wild crocodiles and farmed skins can also be separated by size of scales (farms harvest the animals at a much younger age, roughly 2-3 years) and quality (wild skins have more flaws). In short, seizures of crocodile personal effects, likely from farms, is not assisting the conservation of crocodilians. It may in fact discourage it if it deters people from purchasing the products and in situ conservation is deprived of revenues and incentives to protect wild populations.

I would recommend relaxing the rules on permits for personal effects, and the adoption of a rule similar to the one described in the first paragraph