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Published:June 9th, 2014 11:12 EST
The Ivory Trade Battle Continues

The Ivory Trade Battle Continues

By Vincent Gonzalez

Since the inception of CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in 1973, and its further ban in ivory trade in 1989, its efforts to prevent the trade of ivory has had mixed results. A variety of factors have contributed to its inhibition to carry out effective operation. No place is this seen better than in the controversial movement to ban the trade in ivory of the African elephant (Loxodanta Africana). The goal of this assessment is to examine the effectiveness of CITES efforts to curb the illegal trade in ivory by exploring the mitigation efforts implemented in this policy, and also evaluate the effects ivory demand has had on ecosystems and habitat and to see, if any new ways can help reduce the demand for ivory.             


The African elephant trade ban has had a tumultuous time in curtailing the illegal trade of ivory. A lot of this has to do with the sophistication in which poachers and participants who engage in this activity operate. Blame can also be shared by local African governments, who maintain that they practice sound wildlife management actions when more often than not, corruption, at least at a local law enforcement level prevails in its inadequacies to restrict illegal ivory trade. Initially, the goal of the ban was to stop the illegal ivory supply and prevent the movement of ivory, thereby reducing poaching on elephants and helping in the effort to conserve the highly threatened species. In order to assess whether this assumption worked, an examination of ivory trade and demand needs to be evaluated.  

In Daniel Stilles, The Ivory Trade and Elephant Conservation, (2005) he contends that there are levels of support on which one can evaluate the demand for ivory. According to the author, some examples included but are not limited to, "price of raw ivory, number of active ivory craftsmen, number of workshops, number of retail outlets selling ivory and the number or weight of ivory items seen for sale." (D.Stiles, pg. 310) For the most part, it`s an inconvenient truth that the demand for ivory, though always fluctuating, has not gone away. Most of the data that is used to help evaluate African elephant (which supplies most of the source of ivory in the illegal ivory trade) populations is poor, and according to Daniel Stiles, "There is no published database for any country of the number of elephants poached stretching across the pre- and post- 1990 period." (D. Stiles, pg. 312)  

Of the many factors that contribute to elephant population changes, politics seems to be the most prevalent. Though the trade is economic in nature, political stability has been and continues to be the most significant effect on the investment of wildlife conservation. Proponents for the reopening of ivory trade argue that the African elephant shouldn`t be on the CITES mandate, as the species is not threatened with extinction. Meanwhile, opponents for the reopening of ivory trade maintain that the trade in elephant products does threaten the African elephant, which could eventually lead to the real possibility for their extinction. At the end of the day, even without CITES ivory ban, elephants are killed annually to supply the unregulated ivory trade. Demand is what motivates more elephant poaching and ivory smuggling to provide supply. This is an argument most trade proponents espouse since they maintain that the legal trade of ivory will help to avoid these problems by generating income and providing incentives towards better conservation efforts.

With increasing instability constantly plaguing most African nations, and also with the abundant availability of guns on the continent, trade opponents explain that expanding the ivory trade under the guise of legal ivory would only worsen the situation. Increasingly, it`s been recently surfacing that poachers and dealers have been becoming more elaborate and sophisticated with their smuggling techniques. Smugglers and poachers have now been employing a more risk-reduction strategy by smuggling quantities of ivory through intermediate countries, countries which usually have no elephant population of its own prior to shipment internationally. This serves the dealers by minimizing the time the ivory is actually in their hands and distances them from the original country in which the elephant was initially poached. Dealers and smugglers of ivory are aware that for the most part, authorities usually give more attention to the county of export rather than where they should be focusing their attention at, the country where the ivory was actually poached.

Trade opponents argue that the ivory trade ban does not prevent countries from generating income from ivory. Under CITES Decision 11.2, non-commercial permits allow for the purchases of ivory stockpiles (KWS 2002). They also maintain that wildlife conservation efforts can be better supported by the general public by environmental education programs and by government compensation for human-elephant conflicts. These expenses can be generated by tourism, which elephants play a vital role in.  Trade proponents on the other hand are quick to emphasis that the demand alone doesn`t explain the decline in elephant populations, as corruption, bad policies and a failure to invest in the protection and management of wildlife resources by African governments are also partly to blame.  

It`s hard not to think of the association that ivory demand has on biodiversity conservation, since both are tightly interlocked. In Lindsey Gillson and Keith Lindsay article, Ivory & Ecology - Changing Perspectives on Elephant Management and the International Trade in Ivory, (2002)the authors explain that a shift in the ecological paradigms could influence discussions on the demand for ivory. The African elephant plays a major role in the balance of the savanna ecosystem. The authors explain that the views of the role that African elephants play in an ecosystem are often skewed by ineffective data and misinterpretations, creating a dysfunctional framework between ecologist and wildlife management authorities. According to the authors, "In general, changes in elephant abundance, or habit . . . is perceived as an undesirable disruption of equilibrium conditions, and a potentially irreversible threat of the savanna ecosystem and its biodiversity . . . However, the degree, and extent and duration of the adverse effects are not specified or documented and a widespread, irreversible, local extinction is thus not distinguished from a localized, short-term reduction in abundance. There are few studies that have attempted to quantify the effects of elephants on biodiversity on even a short term, localized scale, and the scientific evidence is equivocal." (L. Gillson, K. Lindsy, pg. 413)

Due to the demand of ivory, it appears inappropriate wildlife management practices continue to be the norm when it comes to elephant conservation. The narrative supplied by these authors suggests that the decade old rationale of "balance of nature" continues to perforate as the justification for continued elephant poaching. The authors further suggest that tourism is a much better option and can help generate greater income to local communities than ivory sales.  

  In Rasmus Heltberg, Impact of the Ivory Trade Ban on Poaching Incentives: A Numerical Example (2000), Heltberg went on to explore the full extent of the ivory ban under CITES, using numerical analysis to discuss the potential incentives of managed trade in elephant products, (which include ivory but also hides and meat) verses the effects of a complete ban. Heltberg focused his research on a topic typically avoided by researchers studying the effects of CITES efforts to ban the trade in ivory, looking at poachers incentives. According to the author, ". . . how does the trade ban affect poachers` incentives. This key issue has not received much attention in any of the existing studies and surveys." (R. Haltberg, pg. 190).

By developing and using a simple model of ivory trade before and after CITES went into effect, Heltberg attempted to determine the impact poaching has had on elephant populations. By analyzing a combination of illegal price and supply of ivory, world market demands and interactions between trade bans, Heltberg attempted to analyze the potential cost of the CITES ivory trade ban. Based on his analysis, it seems that the trade ban has a high likelihood of improving endangered species from poaching, in particular elephants. Even with the results from his study, Heltberg was quick to mention that continued research is necessary to provide more concrete data. According to the author, "The lack of firm empirical data and the simplicity of the model do not permit one to make population projections from this analysis. A proper evaluation of CITES` ivory trade ban would require time-consuming and costly field studies of poaching, illegal markets and prices as well as elephant population counts." (R. Heltberg, pg. 195) Heltberg cautioned that even with the results from his study, monitored and limited trade in elephant ivory  still merits consideration, at the very least as a plausible way of funding conservation efforts.   

 In Dissecting the Illegal Ivory Trade: An Analysis of Ivory Seizures Data (2013)by Fiona Underwood, Robert Burn and Tom Milliken, what these researchers looked at was the evidence provide by a system know as MIKE, (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) the only real extensive database that records the reported seizures of illegal ivory. By examining the data and outlining it their new modeling framework, the goal of their research was to help mitigate the bias in seizures estimated. By dissecting the variability in reporting, their research was able to adjust the relative estimates of illegal ivory activity. The goal of their results was to better evaluate the trends in the illegal ivory trade market and to provide more concrete evidence to better inform international policy makers when it comes to elephant conservation. By utilizing existing data, these researchers were able to help further better practicing measures for elephant conservation with regards to ivory trade.  According to the authors, ". . . our analysis does show that relative seizure and reporting rates can be estimated even though their absolute values are not estimable . . . simple summaries of illegal ivory seizures data that do not account for these biases can be misleading in recognizing . . . trends over time." (Underwood, pg. 6)

     There is little doubt that unregulated ivory trade still takes place, yet the complexities surrounding the real world killings of elephants, ivory trading and ownership, and consumer behavior is hard to asses with current patchy available data and ivory demand trends. Seems that at the end of the day, what likely dictate`s the ivory market demand are more local conditions like political stability and law enforcement rather than legal international ivory bans.   

When it comes down to it, policy makers need to be mindful of the policy implication for reducing ivory demand. Better management practices and regulations for ivory demand needs to be better implemented so that ivory demand can be limited to more sustainable supply levels. More needs to be done to better regulate domestic ivory markets, especially African countries with poor wildlife management practices and widespread corruption. More research also needs to be done to better provide policy makers with more concrete evidence for elephant conservation. Most import of all though, more research needs to be done in coming up with ways to stop poaching at its source, thereby keeping the remaining wildlife from being killed in the first place. Until such efforts are made, seems like the only beneficiaries of the illegal international ivory trade are poachers, criminals and smugglers. In spite of what polices work better than others, there will always be a demand for ivory, regardless if it`s acquired legally or otherwise. Seems that if a species has commercial value, reservations taken in constructing an effective international regime to conserve and protect endangered species are poised to be fraught with difficulties.     



    Gillson, Lindsey, and Keith Lindsay. 2002. "Ivory and Ecology: Changing Perspectives on Elephant Management and the International Trade." Environmental Science and Policy 6 (5): 411-19.  

2.            Heltberg, R. 2000. "Impact of the Ivory Trade Ban on Poaching Incentives: A Numerical Example."  Ecological Economics, 36 (2), 189-195.   

3.)       KWS (2002) Kenya`s position on the re-opening of the ivory trade. Press Release, 25 October 2002, Kenya Wildlife Service, Nairobi, Kenya.      

4.)    Stiles, D. 2005. "The Ivory Trade and Elephant Conservation."  Environmental Conservation, 31(4), 309-321.       

5.)    Underwood, F. , Burn, R. , & Milliken, T. 2013. "Dissecting the illegal ivory trade: An analysis of ivory seizures data." PloS One, 8(10), e76539.         


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