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A Beginner’s Guide to the Ivory Trade

So, let’s start at the beginning.

What is ivory?

Ivory unsurprisingly comes from elephant tusks, which are those white spikes that stick out of an elephants face. These are in fact modified front teeth that grow forward out of the elephant’s mouth. These teeth grow continuously throughout the elephant’s life and are vital to its survival. Elephants use them for a number of purposes, including stripping bark from trees, tearing off branches, digging for water and fighting.

The history of the ivory trade

Ivory carving is almost as old as humanity itself. The oldest ever carving of the human form comes from a 40 000 year old carving made out of mammoth ivory. The reason that ivory is so sought after is that it is relatively easy to carve with metal tools, and its shiny, milky white colour conveys an impression of purity. This allows for the creation of stunning pieces such as this (http://www.chait.com/asp/fullCatalogue.asp?salelot=IFA1107++216+) . Few can deny the craftsmanship or beauty of such carvings, but they have come at a terrible price. During the colonial era, ivory was known as white gold, and was one of the most sought after commodities for empires staking their claim to overseas territories. Elephants were hunted relentlessly, but back then, the elephant population was so vast that the supply seemed almost limitless. Researchers estimate that around the 1800s, 26 million elephants roamed Africa. The “Great White Hunters” of the day would venture into the African wilderness and slaughter elephants by the thousands, leaving the carcasses to rot in the sun. Some believe this is where the stories of elephant graveyards originate.  They targeted the individuals with the largest tusks, but in doing so, they all but hunted out the large tusk genes, which is why the record tusk of 102kgs comes from 1899, and no specimens today come close. This killing fuelled the market for luxury items such as piano keys, pool balls, ornaments and combs across the western world. By 1913, the elephant population had dropped to 10 million, and was in rapid free-fall. Around the ‘70s, demand in Western nations started to subside as the public became aware of the consequences of the trade, but by then the Asian market for ivory has started to blossom. By the 1980s, the population dipped below 1 million. By this stage, many African countries were trying to control elephant hunting, but it continued unabated illegally. By 1989, elephants numbered just 600 000. Watch a video of this decline here (http://education.nationalgeographic.com/media/history-ivory-trade/)

The ban on the trade of ivory

Kenya was one of the countries worst hit by ivory poaching, and in 1989, led by conservationist Richard Leakey, they staged a public burning of a huge stockpile of ivory. These images galvanised the international public into action, and by 1990, the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) announced a global ban on the trade in ivory. This effectively destroyed all demand for ivory, and elephant numbers rebounded to about a million individuals by 1999.

Once off sales of ivory

During the ban, some African countries accumulated large stockpiles of ivory from natural deaths and seizures. Countries like South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe felt they were being unfairly punished, as they still had healthy elephant populations and now had to keep their ivory locked up. They placed pressure on CITES to temporarily lift the ban and allow a once-off, controlled sale of ivory. In 1999, CITES relented, and allowed an “experimental” sale of ivory to Japan. Subsequently, China placed pressure on CITES for a second controlled sale, and despite huge opposition, they got their way in 2008. Proponents of the sale argued that flooding the market with cheap legal ivory would reduce the need for illegal sources, and if the stockpiles were released slowly and consistently, vendors would move away from the unreliable illegal suppliers. History unfortunately has proved them very wrong.

The situation today

The legal ivory sales once more stimulated a demand for ivory where it had almost ceased to exist. The Chinese delegates at a CITES convention in 2002 admitted that the 1999 sale sent mixed messages to consumers. Where before they were being told that buying ivory was absolutely wrong, the legal sale sent the message that it was only kind of wrong… sometimes, and their desire for ivory was not something to be ashamed about. The criminal networks selling the illegal ivory capitalised on this confusion, promoting ivory as a status symbol to the growing middle class. China is the main destination for ivory but there is now also significant demand from other Asian nations like Thailand, Hong-Kong and the Philippines. This rise in demand has fuelled the illegal poaching of elephants to crisis proportions. A recent survey estimates that 100 000 elephants were illegally killed in the last three years. Countries that have large elephant populations but do not have the resources to police their wildernesses are being the worst affected. Central Africa has seen a 64% decline in their elephant population in the last decade. In Tanzania’s Selous National Park, an elephant census in 1976 recorded approximately 109 000 individuals. A repeat survey last year recorded just 13 000 left. In war torn regions like Mali and the Central African Republic, armed militia are intimidating and coercing locals into leading them to elephant feeding areas. They then use high-powered weapons to mow down whole herds. The ivory that they collect from these massacres is allegedly sold to finance further arms purcahses. In Zimbabwe, people have poisoned water holes with cyanide in Hwange National Park, killing hundreds of elephants and countless other animals. The elephant population is now estimated to be just 500 000 worldwide. African Elephant are listed as vulnerable and Asian elephants are listed as endangered.

The economic case against legal sales

Here is a basic economic model to explain why the once-off ivory sales stimulated the illegal poaching of elephants. Below is a basic supply and demand curve, the first graph taught to all first year economics students. On the X-axis (bottom) we have the quantity of ivory supplied by the market, and on the Y-axis (Left) we have the price that the market will sell that good at. We are told that the point where the demand and supply curves cross is the so called “equilibrium” point, where supply equals demand, and that is the price that the market will sell at, and the quantity that will be supplied. At this point, the price of ivory is (a), and the quantity that is being supplied by the illegal market is (x).

Figure 1

Elephant economics graph 1


Now the once-off sale of ivory would increase the supply of ivory in the market, and on the graph this appears as a shift of the supply curve to the right. You can see that this drops the price to (b), but the quantity that is now required by the market has increased to (y). (y) is being supplied by the legal and the illegal market as evident from the green and red lines. Proponents of the sale argued that with the release of the legal product, most of (y) will come from legal sources (n), and the amount of illegal product in the market will become (y-n). You can see that (y-n) from Graph 2 is smaller than (x) from Graph 1, so in effect, this will reduce the demand for the illegal product, which will lift the poaching pressure being placed on wild populations.

Figure 2

Elephant graph 2


The above prediction relies on demand remaining relatively constant. In reality however, what happened was that the legal sale ivory made it more acceptable to buy ivory, which converted many more people who would never have previously bought ivory into new ivory customers. More customers means more demand, and on the graph that appears as a shift of the demand curve upwards. This increases the price from (b) to (c). It also raises the quantity demanded by the market from (y) to (z). However, the legal market can still only supply a quantity of (n), so the rest of the supply, which has now risen to (z-n), must be supplied by the illegal market.

Figure 3

Elephant graph 3

The problem is that there is no telling how high that demand curve will rise. With the middle class in China alone projected to reach 340 million people by 2016, the graph could look more like Figure 4 (http://www.chinabusinessreview.com/understanding-chinas-middle-class/). Remember too that the legal ivory sale was only once off, so it is finite, so once it runs out, all of z will have to be supplied by the illegal market. The real numbers seem to bare this out. The Chinese government is releasing 5 tons of legal ivory into the market a year, which makes (n)=5 tons. However a Chinese delegation at CITES in 2013 estimated that they would require 200 tons to satisfy the intense demand for ivory. Therefore, (z-n)=195 tons of ivory. The average tusk weight of seized ivory is 5kgs, so a quick calculation tells us that 19 500 elephants would have to die per year to satisfy that demand. That is just in China, and that demand curve is still rising. Incidentally, this is the same risk we run if we decriminalise the trade in rhino horn.

Figure 4

 Elephant graph 4


Debunking misconceptions about Chinese consumers

There are major misconceptions that makes many people despair that this battle is unwinnable. These are that Chinese consumers are evil, heartless people that buy ivory despite knowing that an elephant had to die for it, and that they are very unwilling to change their habits. The reality however is very different. Ivory, like most other products, has an extremely opaque supply chain, and most consumers have no idea where the ivory actually comes from. Think about it, do you know exactly where your food, your clothes, your jewellery, your appliances actually come from? Probably not. The mandarin word for ivory literally means elephant teeth, and a survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that 70% of ivory consumers did not know that the elephant had to be killed to collect the ivory. Most of these consumers are simply ignorant, and not evil, as many believe. Encouragingly, 83% of those people said that they would not consume ivory if they had known that it comes from dead elephants. So there is cause for hope.

What is being done?

Demand reduction is the most important tool in fighting the ivory trade, because as the drug trade has proven, as long as there is a demand and money to be made, people will find a way to meet that demand. Several organisations have put their shoulder to the wheel of reducing demand for ivory in Asian countries, the most significant being WildAID and the African Wildlife Foundation. They leverage the influence of popular celebrities such as Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, and get them to star in adverts like this one (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xmqf_UfcARw) to try to convince the public not to buy wildlife products. They have met with some significant success, but there is a long way to go.

The illegal trade in wildlife products has become a multi-billion dollar industry run by ruthless, sophisticated criminal syndicates. These syndicates are involved in the movement of a host of illegal products, from drugs to weapons to people. Organisations such as TRAFFIC are partnering with International crime fighting organisations like Interpol to combat this trade, and they are starting to use the advanced crime fighting techniques employed in the drug trade.

There are some that believe that the war on wildlife crime should be fought on the ground, and that with more rangers that are better trained and equipped, the war can be won. On the ground enforcement is very important, but we are dealing with dispersed elephant populations that roam over vast areas in inhospitable and often war ravaged regions. Laws are often deficient and poorly enforced, and corruption regularly undermines the good work of rangers on the ground. For this reason, the conservation returns to investment in on the ground anti-poaching are likely to be quite poor. The criminal syndicates are too intelligent, and have too much money to be hindered by small, dispersed forces.

What can you do?

The first thing you can do is to learn to love elephants. Learn what amazing, intelligent and complex animals elephants are, because it is hard to care about an animal you know little about. Then, learn about their plight. Read up on the impact that poaching, habitat loss, climate change and human-elephant conflict is having on these majestic beasts. From there you can decide to get involved. Sign petitions, volunteer your time, protest, and most importantly, donate. There are a host of organisations doing fantastic work in the fight to save elephants. Choose where you think your money will best be spent, whether that is in research, crime fighting, demand reduction or any other cause close to your heart. Just make sure first that the organisation is legitimate, and that they are one of the best organisation in their field.

Just remember that people are people, no matter where they are in the world, and if we are united in our message that buying ivory of any sort is unacceptable, we can turn the tide on this crisis.

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