Ivory: Sell It Or Burn It?


Tusks ready for burning in Nairobi National Park, Kenya, April 29, 2016

Kenyan tusk stockpile: Nairobi National Park, Kenya

In 1979 the population of the African elephants was estimated to be 1.3 million. Over the following decade, events worldwide occurred that dramatically drove up the demand for ivory. Namely: improving economies and the resultant increased demand in Asian countries where ivory confers status. More recently, the recognition of the ease of obtaining raw ivory through poaching, and the value of that ivory which could be used to fund armies and terrorist activities, has led to the formation of Asian-based/African-run organized crime syndicates. These groups possess expensive and sophisticated arms and other equipment by which they can “slaughter and extract” ivory from whole herds very quickly.

Truthfully, we cannot point the finger only at Asian ivory markets; America’s sad little secret is that we are the second largest market for ivory. The largest retail concentrations are in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Before pressure to stop sales caused Ebay to remove ivory from it site in 2007, it was one of the most commonly purchased items – most of it came from China, so some of the trade there is being driven by demand here.

By 1989 the elephant population had diminished to about 600,000. In 1990, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed the African elephant as an Appendix One species, which conferred a ban on the international sale of ivory. Member countries that sign the CITES agreement are prohibited from participating in the sale of ivory. The ban, and the publicity it generated, resulted in decreased poaching levels, but did not stop poaching activity. Today the elephant population is estimated to be at about 500,000. At the current rates of attrition (about 35,000 deaths per year), the African elephant will be extinct within 10-15 years if nothing is done to stem the losses.

Do we want to save the African elephant? I think that most people do want to save this iconic, beloved and ecologically vital species, but there is considerable controversy over how to save it. Full disclosure: I adore elephants! More so after I met and “adopted” one at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Nairobi elephant rescue center in 2014. Her name is Mbegu. I support her and the Trust financially, and my fervent hope is that she will successfully integrate into wild elephant society when she is old enough and ready to go. I hope that she becomes a matriarch with many children and outlives me by decades! The biologist in me also loves the ecological significance of elephants. They are the browsers, whose job it is to break up the soil and clear brush to create grasslands for the grazers (what the buffalo migration did in North America before we removed them from the landscape). The beetles that colonize elephant dung and create the massive nests that characterize the African savannah are the primary custodians of soil quality and erosion control. This process has happened in balance over millennia, until it was disrupted by habitat loss and now nearly destroyed by the greed and misconduct of mankind. So I make no bones about how strongly I feel that saving the elephant and it’s habitat is a necessary and honorable duty of our generation.

In the years since the sale of ivory became illegal, many countries have built up large stockpiles, in theory to keep it out of the illegal trade pipeline, yet many instances have been reported of government-protected, locked and guarded stockpiles mysteriously disappearing. CITES and associated conservation groups, including TRAFFIC (a wildlife trade monitoring system), MIKE (Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants), and ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System), have developed data collection tools to track elephant populations and losses, and the movement of ivory and other animal parts, with the aim to discover the associations between incidences of poaching and the fluctuations of the illicit trade. Over the period of 2010-2015, these entities estimated that about 75-80% of all raw ivory was obtained from poached animals, while 20-25% came from natural death, government removal of problem animals and some ivory for which no known source is discoverable. So, poaching and the demand for ivory is front and center the cause of diminishing elephant populations.

Both CITES and member countries have made efforts to allow regulated legal movement or sale of ivory products which existed prior to the ban. U.S. Fish and Wildlife has a system for certifying qualified antique pieces for inheritance transfers or sales. But, because it is almost impossible to distinguish legitimate legacy pieces from new ivory, the boundaries between the two markets are completely porous and the legal market effectively acts as a cover for the illegal trade. That is evident here in the US where seizures of retail ivory have been determined to be made up of more than 50% illegal items. For all of these reasons, many conservationists have come to the conclusion that the only way to absolutely guarantee that no illegal ivory will filter into the international market, is to destroy it. I support this action.

lightafirelogo_optThis Saturday, April 30th, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta will set fire to 105 tons of ivory in Nairobi National Park. The ceremony follows heavy publicity and the #lightafire and #worthmorealive social media campaigns aimed at getting international public support behind the decision to destroy the stockpiled ivory.

Over two dozen ivory destruction events have taken place over the last couple of decades, including one here in Denver in 2013 in which all U.S. confiscated ivory that had been stockpiled over 25 years was crushed and buried. This upcoming burn in Kenya is especially significant because it is so large (valued at $.3billion dollars on the black market). It is also meaningful because Kenya literally invented the ivory burn: the first ever was lit by then President Moi in 1989. Kenya has taken other extraordinary measures to curb poaching and the trade in ivory and other endangered species, including passing legislation to imprison convicted poachers for life. To date, two such sentences have been handed down.

The decision to destroy the stockpile has strong critics including a few other African countries (Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa). Botswana does not officially advocate selling of stockpiles but has used its ivory to create works of art and educational exhibits for the public to see. South Africa is among several countries that advocate ivory sales and the use of the proceeds for conservation efforts. But even if Kenya wanted to sell its ivory, this is not even possible under the terms of the CITES ban, to which Kenya is a signatory. They could only sell it on the black market. That would represent a complete reversal of philosophy and of everything the Kenyan government has worked to put in place to protect elephants. Its common knowledge now that wildlife tourism brings more benefits to the country than would ivory sales: $25-30 million into the economy per year, and half a million people employed by tourism – all sustainable benefits – vs. a one-time sale of ivory.

Notably, Kenya has seen a 50% decrease in poaching since enacting zero tolerance measures and greater surveillance of its parks, while poaching pressure has remained high in South Africa and other countries that advocate the sale of ivory. Could this be seen by poaching networks as a lax attitude toward the killing and an unspoken summons to proceed? No one knows for sure, but I submit there is an association.

The other argument against the burn is that it won’t work and in fact could lead to a decreased supply that would increase prices and drive more poaching. But the traditional economic principles of supply and demand have never been applicable to the ivory trade. This is because the demand is so astronomical: surveys reveal that 80% of China’s 1.4 billion citizens are now in the market to buy ivory. The amount of ivory that could satisfy that level of demand doesn’t exist on the planet. ALL the raw tusks and ALL the elephants now alive and their collective reproductive capacity could not furnish that level of demand in the short run. Economically speaking, there is no long run because the supply will be extinct before the demand can be met at the current level of consumption. The premise that increasing supply will soften demand has been tested when on occasion certain countries have been granted permission to sell their stockpiles. When CITES approved a one time sell-off of ivory stockpiles in 2009, it triggered both increased demand and rapidly escalating ivory prices in China and other Asian countries. The Chinese dealers of ivory have created a monopoly and practice price fixing to stimulate demand – keeping the price high to emphasize status and simulate low supply (think diamonds and the DeBeers monopoly).

So what can we all, who want to save the African elephant do? Ultimately the fate of elephants lies in the hands of those who would buy ivory, so we can choose not to buy it and educate our friends not to do so either. Don’t believe dealers who tell you it was collected legally (or pre-ban), knowing that there is very little regulation and that it’s impossible to tell where (or when) it really came from. A handful of states have enacted full ivory sale bans and now one is pending in Colorado. If you live in here, sign the petition or contact your legislator to put your voice behind the proposed ivory ban currently being considered in the statehouse.

Consider lending your support to one of the many organizations that are working to save the African landscape and its inhabitants. I suggest the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust: https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/. Not only are they doing the heartwarming work of rescuing and rehabilitating injured and orphaned elephants, rhinos and other animals, they are manning surveillance flights over Tsavo National Park and other critical elephant ranges, to report poachers and hinder poaching activity.

But the best advice I can offer is to GO to Kenya – go anywhere in Africa and see in person the majestic giants (and all of the brilliant wildlife there) and the valiant efforts being made by the locals who care about retaining that noble symbol of African society. There is literally no experience like it on earth and you will return with cherished memories and a fire in your gut to do whatever you can protect what we have left, which is still pretty amazing!

Vet Treks is leading a crew to Kenya in August 2016 to collaborate with the African Network for Animal Welfare (http://www.anaw.org/) and participate in community rabies vaccination and spay/neuter campaigns. Along the way we will interact with the wonderful Kenyans who are working hard to conserve their natural inheritance. We will also see – and meet up close, elephants – lots of them! Join us!

Matriarch and one week old calf, Tsavo East National Park, Kenya

Matriarch and one week old calf, Tsavo East National Park, Kenya