Elephants are not Diamonds


To view ivory as a commodity ignores the underlying principles of population biology.

Katarzyna Nowak and her colleagues reignite the debate on whether a regulated legal trade in ivory can ever be a mechanism advantageous to elephant conservation.

At the upcoming 16th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP), a new decision-making mechanism for a process of trade in ivory is on the agenda. The decision to adopt such a mechanism was made at CoP14 (The Hague, 2007) on the back of approved one-off ivory sales and prior to the elephant poaching crisis escalating as it has.

We have now reached a time of reckoning for elephants, given general agreement that they are losing their lives at an unprecedented rate to sustain an archaic tradition of ivory use. However, a regulated, legal trade is not the way forward. Here, we lay out some of the reasons. 

We refer to Decision Making Mechanisms for a Process of Trade in Ivory (DMM), a report commissioned by the CITES Secretariat (to Martin et al., 2012), and to a letter (November 22, 2012) by IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) member and economist, Daniel Stiles, in The Ecologist written in response to Mary Rice of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).  

The pro-trade stance of the authors of the DMM is well-documented, while Stiles is known for views both pro and con, and Mary Rice is staunchly anti-trade. Both Stiles and the authors of the DMM, at least as the document currently stands, argue that a regulated trade in ivory is both possible and can protect elephants. We comprehensively disagree.

Recent published discussions of the DMM are economical with the truth in their description of the ivory trade.  Market research with conservationist Esmond Bradley-Martin, like that of the EIA, demonstrates that the main cause for rising ivory prices is demand in China.

Demand is exacerbated by the hoarding of 'legal' ivory by the Chinese government and weak enforcement mechanisms that allow illegal ivory to be laundered into the legal domestic market to such an extent that illegal ivory now represents up to 90% of sales.

Yet, the CITES-commissioned authors of the DMM are the latest ivory trade proponents to rollout the aging hobby-horse of ‘sustainable trade’. They assume that it is possible to establish balance between ivory supply and demand. This assumption illustrates a disquieting lack of understanding of basic demography and harvesting theory, as well as a naïve perspective on ivory market mechanisms.

To view ivory as a commodity like diamonds or gold is oblivious of the underlying principles of population biology, lacking appreciation of sustainability, and ignoring the corruption and ethics associated with such exploitation. As Hilde Vanleeuwe, also a member of the AfESG, aptly writes, “Only diamonds do not have to die, they don’t move, play no role as shapers of the environment, do not influence other species, do not suffer when taken” (in AfESG’s comments on the DMM). 

EIA’s Mary Rice describes one-off ivory sales as having boosted (not created) demand because ivory from these sales confused consumers in that the trade became both legal and illegal. The Chinese government likewise attributed growth in demand to the confusion that followed the first one-off sale to Japan in 1999.

At last year’s (July 2012) 62nd Standing Committee meeting, however, Wang Ziming changed the tune, instead arguing that the ban, rather than the one-off sales, hadn’t worked and that China (which in 2008 had been granted ivory trading partner status for the second one-off sale on grounds that were neither transparent nor communicated) should now be allowed to buy confiscated as well as legal ivory.

In a somewhat surprising move, Japan, akin to anti-trade countries such as Kenya, is currently asking that the decision-making mechanism for a process of trade in ivory be re-considered saying that the trading mechanism proposed by the DMM consultants (Martin et al., 2012) based on the De Beers model for diamonds is not appropriate for ivory. We agree, and think that any trade mechanism should be put on hold until control measures and mechanisms are in place to curb illegal killing and trade. 

The supposition that, “the ivory ban is not working” could just as well be replaced with “one-off ivory sales are not working” given that there has not actually been a ban since the first “one-off” sale in 1999. Some ivory trade proponents are nevertheless pushing for a regulated trade, on the pretext that previous one-off sales, of relatively “small” amounts of ivory (representing >17,000 elephants), did not drive demand but "created first hope, then uncertainty with ivory traders and manufacturers”, and that, “traders/manufacturers cannot rely on a legal supply and, therefore, buy illegal ivory”.

How would a central ivory selling organization (CISO), as proposed in the DMM work? As long as there exists a thriving illegal market and no mechanism for controlling demand, control would be impossible. The monitoring of elephant populations, illegal killing and illegal trade has been notoriously difficult despite two CITES-managed programs – MIKE (Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants) and ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System) – both have been slow to ponderous in their attempts to detect changes and establish causality.

As Nigeria, one of the specified stakeholders on the DMM, points out,  “prior to the 1989 international ivory ban there was a legal trade in ivory, supposedly regulated by a quota system, which neither minimised the laundering of illegal ivory nor the illegal killing of elephants.”

To our best knowledge there have been no attempts to estimate current demand for ivory – another criticism of what is missing from the current DMM report. If we assume that the amount of ivory seized in 2011 – in excess of 38 tons – represents 20% of illegal ivory leaving Africa (10% has previously been used), then current demand could conservatively be estimated at 190 tons or 190,000 kg/year, which is more than Tanzania’s entire ivory stockpile (among the largest held in Africa) collected from 1989 until the present, or in excess of 21,000 elephants.

Who will allocate their time – in the expansive African bush – to finding tusks from naturally dead elephants (legal ivory) to meet this demand? Or would we witness an unaccountable rise in elephants killed for “Problem Animal Control” (a second source of legal ivory) or “cropping” to increase ivory stockpiles? 

Demand from China – and elsewhere – obviously continued following the 1989 ivory trade ban, and has surged in parallel with China’s growing prosperity. However, this demand did not arise from the ban, and neither did corruption and illegality; to suggest as much is disingenuous and dangerous.

Ivory traders have ignored and undermined systems put in place by CITES, including the contentious one-off sales – for example, the deliberate 500-650% inflation by Chinese officials of prices of ivory acquired from the last one-off sale!

To deny that the 1989 ban provided respite for elephants is willfully misleading. The ivory ban provided impetus to protect elephant populations, which take decades to recover from overexploitation. For example, Tanzania lost 236,000 elephants from 1979-89, and gained 87,000 from 1989-2007 (Lemieux & Clarke, 2009); in areas of extreme overexploitation, recovery is reduced due to social disruption ("Allee effects") for example nearly 50% of the adult female population in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania, still lack a close adult relative (Gobush et al., 2008, 2009).

The enduring absence of social bonding mechanisms results in lower reproductive outputs, and increased vulnerability to poaching and stress (ibid.). Elephants are not a resource like diamonds or gold that can be mined out and then another source found. 

It is peculiar that some members of the IUCN specialist group, MIKE-ETIS TAG and the CITES Secretariat do not consider experience from the world’s fisheries. More than 90% of these have been massively over-exploited. Generally, the larger the body size of the species that is harvested, the more extensive is the level of overexploitation. A basic understanding of population biology reveals why this is so: small species reproduce rapidly and can be exploited at much higher levels than larger species that reproduce slowly.

Elephants reproduce very slowly and levels of sustainable exploitation are likely to be very low, even when their populations are at healthy levels of abundance. Too little population biology is incorporated into discussions about the economics of the ivory trade. Furthermore, discussions of such exploitation completely ignore whether the world would entertain the purposeful killing of elephants, proposed by the DMM, that would supply a demand for ivory ornaments.

“Indeed, the Consultants actually list seizures of ivory from illegal hunters as a source of ivory that would be traded under the system they propose, which amounts to the ‘laundering’ of illegal ivory into a legal system and clearly creates a perverse incentive promoting corruption and undermining effective law enforcement” writes stakeholder Simon Hedges of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Some believe that the only viable solution is to “regain the trust” of illegal traders. Naively assuming that the ivory market is honest dangerously undermines the work undertaken by enforcement agencies such as INTERPOL in dismantling ivory criminal networks and reducing incentives to consume wild species.

The ivory trade has never been honest; the majority of ivory entering the trade has been illegally harvested. In the late 1980s when CITES-regulated trade was finally accepted as a failure and the ban introduced, more than two thirds of the trade was illegal. Perhaps the most egregious example is Burundi, a country with no wild elephants, yet between 1965 and 1986 exported 1,305 tons of ivory. 

Given the consistent lack of compliance with existing game and export laws in numerous African countries, it is far-fetched to believe in an honest, regularized and sustainable trade in ivory – and apparently, as Stiles contends, without enforcement. Where Mary Rice advocates "intelligence-led enforcement... conviction... raising penalties", Daniel Stiles suggests that, "Fighting supply through law enforcement is basically futile." The success of programs like the Arcus-funded LAGA in Cameroon fighting wildlife crime demonstrate the opposite - that law enforcement is not futile.

What about enforcement on the demand side? No one disagrees that targeting consumption is key; yet some seem to assume that enforcement applies only to source countries. How many arrests, prosecutions and convictions have we seen in consumer countries? Ivory seizures are not indicative of successful compliance, and far too often represent missed opportunities for tracking the shipments up the consumer chain through “intelligence-led enforcement”.

It seems contradictory to us to promote a regulated trade in ivory while at the same using the slogan, “Remember, when the buying stops, the killing stops” (attributed to WildAid). While we are in complete agreement that “public awareness campaigns should be started in Asia to drive ivory demand down by creating a huge stigma associated with owning ivory,” we wonder who is to be responsible for this ongoing public education?

Moreover, how will it be achieved if a “legal” trade in ivory is authorized by CITES and governments? Will CITES, range state governments, the carving industry or those benefiting from ivory sales be held responsible? Or will NGOs, once again, be left to foot the bill for a trade that they have fought against? As the stakeholder country Mali points out, “…the international community (and particularly the criminals involved in illegal wildlife trade) may interpret the deliberations on the decision-making mechanism as an indication that the resumption of ivory trade is being discussed or has already been approved.”

 “Unless the laws of supply and demand are recognized as the primary problem…, elephants stand no chance of surviving,” wrote Dan Stiles in his piece for The Ecologist.  Laws of supply and demand normally mean supply meeting demand in relation to pricing. In the case of ivory, elephant population dynamics require that demand be reduced to match supply. Raising the price of ivory to choke demand is actually a recipe for illegal killing.

What is the supply of ivory to be based upon? Elephants killed expressly for the purpose of such supply? Ivory confiscated from poachers? Ivory obtained from killing “problem animals”? Or only from those elephants who die a natural death? For in these answers lies another can of worms – of ethics and economic calculations of the value of trade in an economy that is expanding exponentially in its purchasing power. 

Range countries ultimately hold the power over their stockpiles, and, like Kenya and Gabon, have the choice of burning their ivory, demonstrating that ivory should only be seen as an asset while on live elephants. Ivory is a living, growing tooth on a free-ranging mammal and protecting each individual from profiteering is more costly than any revenue to be made by trade.

Elephant tusks are not diamonds; elephant numbers are rapidly diminishing and ivory is becoming synonymous with corruption and organized crime including money laundering, drugs, human and arms trafficking. In Africa, this trade fuels poverty, insecurity, and armed conflicts, putting people’s lives at risk and threatening economic options like tourism as well as causing irreparable harm to Africa’s environment by removing a major ecosystem engineer. 

While theoretical models for a sustainable ivory trade will continue to emerge – such as the Decision-Making Mechanism report authored by pro-traders – we cannot afford to conduct any more experiments with elephants. We urge CITES to take the DMM off the table given the current crisis and extend the moratorium on any further proposals to trade in elephant ivory given that there is no proof that legal sales have not been detrimental.

We also urge CITES to be more widely inclusive of a variety of stakeholders, including those who are anti-trade or middle-of-the-road (and who may better represent elephant rather than business interests).  

The ivory trade has never and can never be managed sustainably, nor without a total dominance of corruption, this is why we support a total moratorium on ivory sales and the destruction of existing and future stockpiles. CITES member states should have the integrity to put such a ban and plan of action in place – otherwise the entire CITES system risks total discredit.

Meanwhile, China, as a mega-consumer of ivory and many other African resources, has the power to stop its domestic ivory trade. As an emerging super-power, and as a huge investor in Africa, China cannot afford to be held responsible for the destruction of the continent’s heritage into the future. 

Image of baby elephants playing courtesy of  



Katarzyna Nowak, Andy Dobson, Joyce Poole, Petter Granli, Paula Kahumbu, Phyllis Lee, Winnie Kiiru, Ponjoli Joram, Cyprian Malima, Cynthia Moss

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