Destroying Ivory to Save Elephants

When I was eight years old, I remember watching the news and seeing something strange, yet incredibly powerful. An image of large, white elephant tusks burning in flames in a country called Kenya. The year was 1989, and poaching for ivory, the illegal killing of elephants to obtain their tusks, was occurring at alarming rates. Renowned as a carving substrate, people purchase ivory products in the form of statues and jewelry. As a little girl from halfway across the world, I was upset and wanted the massacre to stop. Kenya orchestrated the burn to bring international attention to the plight of elephants (which it did) and send a signal that Kenya was not going to tolerate elephant poaching. The ivory burning helped initiate and pass the international ban on ivory in 1990. When I actually visited Kenya in 2003, I was able to visit the site of the burning, a pit filled with charred remnants in Nairobi National Park, a permanent reminder that poaching kills elephants.

Kenya’s 1989 ivory burn Source:
Kenya’s 1989 ivory burn

Elephant poaching, sadly, has peaked again, and now, the U.S. is increasing its involvement. In a similar move as Kenya, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will crush its 25 year-old, 6-ton stockpile of confiscated trade ivory in Denver, Colorado on November 14th to bring international attention to the plight of elephants. As a girl, I was an easy sell for the anti-ivory campaign. I loved animals and my family had no means or desire to purchase ivory products (they did not fit in with my mother’s shabby chic home décor). But I have wondered, how strong is this message to potential buyers? For many, it seems counterintuitive to destroy such a lucrative product (ivory sold last year at $1,000 per pound on the streets of Beijing). Would it be better to sell the confiscated ivory legally and use this money to protect wild populations of elephants from further poaching? Although the U.S. stockpile would never be sold into the market legally, other countries argue to sell their stockpiles (and have been successful). Here I explore the consequences of destroying and selling ivory stockpiles.

Arguments for Destroying Ivory
The goal of the U.S. destroying its stockpile is to send a message, a strong one, that the ivory trade will not be tolerated. Ivory is typically associated as being valuable by Asian cultures, with the largest market being China. However, the U.S. is the second largest consumer. Robert G. Dreher, assistant attorney general for the environment and natural resources has explained this message; “By destroying our domestic stocks of ivory, we send a very clear signal that these illegally traded products should not be perceived as items of value.” Similarly, in Gabon, which burned confiscated ivory in 2012, President Bongo announced Gabon’s stance; “Gabon has a policy of zero tolerance for wildlife crime and we are putting in place the institutions and laws to ensure this policy is enforced.” For many African countries, poaching has been linked to government officials themselves. Destroying the ivory holds the country nationally accountable. Long-time elephant biologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton summarizes this well, “When a country [destroys] ivory, it means they put behind them any chance of underhanded dealings. It’s not like pretending to have a ban and then selling the ivory under the carpet, which often happens.”

Some of the ivory carvings for the U.S. stockpile that will be crushed on November 14th. Source:
Some of the ivory carvings for the U.S. stockpile that will be crushed on November 14th.

The poachers involved in the ivory trade have changed, making the situation more serious and dangerous. Up until the last few years, poaching was mostly done as an opportunity for locals to make money to support their family. Poaching is now being increasingly organized by terrorist organizations, which presents challenges to national and international security. Hillary Clinton describes, “Poachers now use helicopters, automatic weapons, night vision goggles, satellite phones to overwhelm and even murder park rangers and other local authorities.” In addition to being dangerous to elephants, these militia groups pose immense security threats to humans as they move into new areas for poaching. Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army has been poaching elephants for years for funds. Al-Shabaab, recently responsible for the Westgate shopping mall massacre in Kenya, is funded by the illegal ivory trade, with estimates as high as 40% of their income coming from ivory.

Another consequence of selling off ivory stockpiles is that it potentially sends mixed messages to the consumer. Currently, there is already a misconception among buyers. In an International Fund for Animal Welfare 2012 survey in China, seven out of 10 respondents did not realize that elephants had to be killed to obtain ivory. I have experienced this myself in the Gabonese tourist markets when a vendor told me that elephants lose their tusks naturally and they come along and pick them up (they change their story if you say you are an elephant biologist). Saying that some ivory is okay to buy, while others is not is sure to increase this confusion.

Ivory sold among other souvenirs in Gabon’s tourist market. Source: Stephanie Schuttler
Ivory sold among other souvenirs in Gabon’s tourist market.
Source: Stephanie Schuttler

Additionally, differentiating between legal and illegal ivory would be near impossible. For stockpiles that contain confiscated ivory detected during import and export such as that in the U.S. stockpile, ivory could be from elephants all over Africa and poached at any time, making genetic sourcing methods useless. If this stockpile were to be legally sold, it would be difficult to differentiate it from illegally sold ivory and depend on the integrity of the country purchasing it. China was approved by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to be a buyer from a “one-off” sale in 2008, and according to a Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) report in 2012, China’s ivory trade control system has faltered considerably. Government-accredited ivory trading retail outlets were selling ivory products without product identification certificates.

Finally, protecting the stockpiles from theft is a costly operation. The U.S. stockpile represents thousands of killed elephants and is currently held in a warehouse. Several countries including Zambia, Mozambique, and the Philippines have had inventory stolen from their stockpiles. Destroying the stockpiles therefore has an additional payoff of saving money by not having to provide security.

Arguments for Selling Ivory
The arguments for selling ivory are more straightforward. As ivory is highly lucrative, selling it can provide money that could be used to fund the conservation of elephants, and the local communities living with elephants in range states. MIKE analyses also from the 2012 report found a negative relationship between livestock density and crop occurrence to the proportion of illegally killed elephants (PIKE), suggesting that the food security of communities are associated with less poaching. Additionally, human infant mortality, which was used as an indicator for the level of poverty of a site in the analysis, was the strongest predictor of PIKE. Therefore investing in communities surrounding vulnerable elephant populations may be a way to reduce poaching. However, if poaching currently is mostly done by terrorist groups, then this may not have the desired effect. Results also show that sites with a better law enforcement such as rangers on-site tend to have lower poaching levels. Money generated from one-off sales could be used to fund the salaries of rangers in areas of important elephant populations. Selling the stockpile also solves the security problem to guard ivory stockpiles.

Billy, a forest elephant that frequently visited my research site in Gabon, scratches his side on a laundry post. Because of Billy’s large tusks, he is a target for poaching. Source: Stephanie Schuttler
Billy, a forest elephant that frequently visited my research site in Gabon, scratches his side on a laundry post. Because of Billy’s large tusks, he is a target for poaching.
Source: Stephanie Schuttler

What is Best for Elephants?
Some advocates for selling also argue that legal sales will help reduce demand because there will be more product in the market, satisfying the need of consumers, and making the product less rare, and therefore less desirable. However, many fear the opposite; selling ivory will stimulate the market. Daniel M. Ashe, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, has stated that small sales of ivory in the past have stimulated demand and not satiated it.

As a scientist, my thoughts are to look at the data. Whatever your ethics are on selling stockpiles are, the best thing to do is really what helps the elephants most. If selling confiscated ivory funds protection for elephants and prevents more poaching, than would appear to be the better option. However, if selling stockpiles fuels the illegal trade, than destroying stockpiles seems like the best solution. Unfortunately, the science is difficult because the topic is very muddy. There are many factors that contribute to the increase in ivory and trade, showing causation from a specific event is very difficult because of these confounding factors.

Two regulated one-off sales of stockpiles occurred in 1999 and 2008 despite the international ban on the trade of ivory. The most rapid increase in elephant poaching occurred from 2007 to 2011 when the trade had more than doubled, mainly because of increasing demand in China and Thailand. People naturally wondered if the one-off sale in 2008 initiated this sharp increase in poaching and trade. According to a 2012 analysis conducted by MIKE, no evidence was found to support this view. Two important years in poaching trends were 2005, which was a “turning point” in the upward trend, and 2011, which shows further acceleration of poaching.

However, as mentioned before, the trade is muddy and events are not isolated. The year 2008 also initiates the beginning of a nine-year ban on ivory from countries with elephant populations that are not endangered. Allowing one ivory sale at the same time a moratorium is initiated may produce mixed signals in the analysis. In order to fully understand the effects of a one-off sale, analysis would need to be conducted at a time when no other policy decision was taking place. Although the MIKE analysis found no evidence that the 2008 one-off sale had any impact on the increasing trend of poaching elephants, they also note that the data show that the sale did not lead to the reduction of elephant poaching or trade in illegal ivory. My personal thoughts are that more research is needed before we open the floodgates, especially at this extremely vulnerable time for elephants.

Finally, although ivory is lucrative, it is also important to put things into perspective. A one-off sale can generate millions of dollars, but the tourism industry for an African country is worth billions annually. For example, in Kenya, tourism is the second largest source of foreign exchange earning $1.2 billion in 2012 and employing 150,000 people. From my own research interviewing tourists and recording what species they stop view in Kenya, elephants are a huge part of that industry (no pun intended) and protecting them will benefit Kenya’s economy. As the U.S. would have never sold this ivory anyway (it would have remained stored in the warehouse), the best action is to support the crush, talk about it, and use your voice to spread the message that 96 elephants die every day from poaching for ivory.

If you are interested in helping elephants, consider a donation to these organizations: African Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, and World Wildlife Fund.

For a very interesting article on how ivory destruction is done, click here.


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