Ivory Trade

As the CITES Standing Committee deliberates over whether or not to sanction a sale of stockpiled ivory, there are fears that once again, the world’s elephants are in peril.
Mike Fay’s career could be described as one of the most demoralising in conservation. Having worked in Central Africa for more than 20 years, he has seen the region almost emptied of its wildlife. But two years ago, he was offered a rare opportunity for optimism during a visit to Zakouma National Park in southern Chad, one of the few strongholds for large mammals in the Central African savannah.

Fay had heard about Zakouma – every conservationist who knows the region knows about Zakouma – but had never had the chance to visit before. And when he did, he wasn’t disappointed. Flying over the 300,000-hectare park in a light aircraft, he could barely believe his eyes. “This place isn’t just good,” he thought, “it’s spectacular.”

Ivory Trade

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Peering out of the window, he saw below him hundreds of giraffe, thousands of antelope and thousands more buffalo. In an area where populations of large mammals had been in virtual terminal decline since 1970, it felt good to see that those in Zakouma were thriving. Most thrilling of all were the huge herds of elephants roaming the woody savannah – each made up of several hundred individuals – something that was unheard of in this part of the world.

However, the sight of the elephants also sounded a note of caution in Fay’s mind. His experience in Central African Republic had taught him how quickly things could change in this part of the world. It wouldn’t be too long before poachers turned to the treasure trove in Zakouma, he thought.

So, in an effort to support the valiant conservation efforts of Zakouma’s park rangers, Fay raised the funds to conduct a series of
aerial elephant surveys. His first effort, in 2004, counted 3,885. But his second, earlier this year, found only 3,020. It was possible that a herd of 800 elephants had simply left the park to forage, but his intuition told him there was trouble.

His fears were soon confirmed when he found the remains of 100 fresh carcasses and disturbed two hunters’ camps: the poachers who had wiped out almost 300,000 elephants from the region in the past 30 years had turned to Zakouma.

Fay, along with the whole conservation community, believed the war against the ivory trade had ended back in 1990, when an international ban led to a dramatic decline of elephant poaching. “Everyone stopped buying ivory at the time,” he explains, “so the poachers could no longer sell it.”

Now, however, it seems that Fay’s old foes are back, eager to supply a growing demand for ivory. “Selling ivory in Central Africa today is like selling eggs at a farmers’ market,” he says. “There are all kinds of people in every town who are willing to buy.”
But the resurgence isn’t just taking place in Central Africa. The available evidence suggests that in recent years, the level of trade in ivory has been increasing steadily all over the world.

Since the turn of the century, customs officials and police have seized more than 64 tonnes of raw and worked ivory all over Africa and Asia, as well as in Europe and North America and even parts of South America and the Pacific Islands. And recent research shows that markets in 25 African and Asian countries may be selling as much as 83 tonnes of worked ivory every year – the equivalent of more than 12,000 elephants – worth more than US$8million (£4.3million).

“It’s a disaster,” says Esmond Martin, an independent environmental investigator and authority on the ivory trade. “There’s no doubt about it. Poaching is devastating populations of elephants in Central Africa and it could soon spell the end for many small, isolated populations in West Africa and Asia.” But it isn’t just a wildlife issue, he continues. “It’s important to realise that the illegal ivory trade is encouraging the breakdown of law and order on an enormous scale – particularly corruption and murder.”

Now conservationists are warning that the situation could be about to get worse. As Geographical went to press, the standing committee of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was voting on whether to sanction
a sale of stockpiled ivory that conservationists say will kick start a new wave of poaching.

Souvenir of the tropics

The ban on the international trade in ivory came into force in 1990, after a boom that saw the world’s population of elephants halved in ten years. The trade had reached its highest levels during the early 20th century, when European colonial powers were removing more than 1,200 tonnes of ivory a year from Africa and Asia.

However, two world wars and economic depression saw the trade subsequently decline. It was only during the early 1970s that it began to pick up again, as growing prosperity in Europe, North America and Japan enabled their middle classes to afford luxury goods.

Meanwhile, the growth of international air traffic was playing an important part in fuelling demand, according to convervationist Richard Leakey. “The surge in tourism led to increasing numbers of buyers looking for trinkets in tropical destinations,” he says. “And ivory became a souvenir of the tropics, even in countries that had no elephants.”

The Japanese, in particular, developed an insatiable appetite. “When the exchange restrictions imposed upon Japan after the Second World War were lifted during the late 1960s, it began importing huge amounts of raw ivory,” says Martin. By the mid-1980s, Japan was the main consumer, accounting for 40 per cent of global trade. “They were paying the highest prices for the best quality, hard ivory from Asian and forest elephants in Africa. This was better suited to making hankos [carved name stamps
or seals], which are things one keeps for life.”

Elsewhere, softer ivory, mostly from East and Southern Africa, was used to make jewellery and other trinkets. The Europeans and Americans were the major consumers in this case, accounting for around 25 and 15 per cent, respectively. The majority of the rest remained in Africa.

The demand saw the price rise from US$5–6/kilogram in the early 1960s to as much as US$250/kilogram at its peak in the late ’80s. During the same period, the volume increased from around 300 tonnes per year to more than 1,200.

In an attempt to control the trade, CITES introduced a quota system in 1986. But it was poorly regulated and easily evaded, and had no impact on illegal poaching; in that year, around three quarters of all raw ivory on the market came from illegal sources.
The impact on the elephant population was huge. It’s thought that in 1900 there were more than ten million African elephants; by 1979, the number had dropped to an estimated 1.2 million. Ten years later, only 600,000 remained. Less is known about the historical sizes of Asian elephant populations, but by the late 1980s, there were no more than 50,000.

Falling from fashion

Liberal opinion has it that prohibition doesn’t work. Whether it’s alcohol in pre-war USA or drugs and prostitution in the UK today, banning something only drives it underground, increases the value and makes it harder to control. Or so the theory goes.
In the case of ivory, the ban worked. In January 1990, CITES listed the three species of elephant on its Appendix I, which effectively prohibited all international trade in ivory and any other product derived from elephants.

Some range states and other countries, including Japan, maintained a regulated, internal trade of stockpiled ivory, but the majority of the trade, which had been international, became illegal. As a result, the numbers of elephants being poached fell away dramatically: Kenya, for example, which lost more than 80 per cent of its elephants between 1972 and 1989, reported only 41 incidents of poaching in 1998 and 67 in 1999.

The ban helped in two ways, explains Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation, which has been campaigning against the ivory trade for more than 20 years. “It meant that any ivory crossing a border was illegal and nothing could masquerade as legal,” he says. “This helped customs and law-enforcement officers in range states and importing countries take action immediately and with certainty.”

More importantly, however, it helped to drive down the price of ivory. “Within a matter of months, the price dropped from around US$250 per kilo to between US$10 and US$20 per kilo,” continues Travers. “Poachers were genuinely not willing to take a life-threatening risk hunting elephants and evading law-enforcement agencies for such a small amount.”

It wasn’t the ban itself that drove down the price, but the huge public relations push that surrounded it. “It’s hard to put figures on it,” says Leakey, who was head of Kenya’s Wildlife Service at the time and played a key role in lobbying for the ban, “but I would have thought that during the course of a month, more than one billion people around the world were at least conscious of elephants and the ivory trade, and the furore that accompanied it.”

As a result, public appetite fell away and the bottom dropped out of the market. Like furs, ivory suddenly became unfashionable in North America, Europe and Japan. And when the demand dried up, the poachers couldn’t sell their ivory. “In Kenya, we found stockpiles of ivory that nobody claimed,” says Leakey. The traders stopped buying, says Fay, because they couldn’t shift their stock. “They were holding ivory that they’d bought high, and when the market collapsed, they lost a lot of money.”

“After that, it became relatively easy and much less expensive to control the killing of elephants,” says Leakey. Many elephant populations that had been in decline began to recover. Conservationists celebrated, believing the elephant’s future was safe.
However, the effect of the ban didn’t last long. By the mid-1990s, wildlife authorities were reporting rising numbers of elephant carcasses and police and customs officials were seeing increasing levels of ivory seizures. A new appetite for ivory was growing – this time in China.

Carving out an industry

China has a long history of association with ivory that stretches back thousands of years. It was used to make hair pins, fish hooks, sword handles and jewellery as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1600–1030 BC). There subsequently developed a fine tradition of intricate carving.

During the 16th century, China became a global centre for ivory carving, when Europeans not only began buying distinctively Oriental pieces but also taught carvers to sculpt other, particularly Catholic, symbols such as the Madonna, Christ on the cross and various saints. The industry expanded during the 18th and 19th centuries, producing dragon boats, junks pagodas, Canton balls, hairbrush handles, combs, chess sets and fans for markets in Europe and, subsequently, North America.

Martin explains that this situation persisted during the boom of the 1970s and ’80s, when China imported between 30 and 50 tonnes of ivory every year, but sold little to its own people. “The ivory was carved in big, state-owned factories and either re-exported – mostly to Europe, Hong Kong and the USA – or sold to visitors,” he says.

The industry collapsed and the factories closed down following the international ban in 1990. But as China’s economy started to grow and private enterprise became more acceptable, the carvers who had lost their jobs began to open their own small workshops, mostly in their homes.

“These were supplying shops selling trinkets to tourists and businessmen from Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia, where the anti-ivory culture wasn’t so strong,” says Martin. “They were also exporting worked ivory wholesale to neighbouring countries. The Chinese were buying some ivory products for themselves, but only a small proportion.”

Today, although the trade hasn’t reached the peak levels of the 1980s, conservationists are becoming increasingly concerned about the level of poaching. “Between 2000 and 2006, reported seizures of ivory topped 60 tonnes,” says Travers. “In the past 18 months alone, there were 17 tonnes. That’s 2,750 elephants. And that’s only what has been confiscated successfully by police
and customs.”

Some of the ivory that avoids detection is infiltrating the legal, domestic markets of nations such as China and Japan, whose large, legal stockpiles supply the internal carving industries and smuggling operations. “We understand that illegal shipments are being used to supplement these stockpiles,” says Travers. “It’s very difficult to control the problem, or even to know its extent, because it’s virtually impossible to guarantee the origins of a worked ivory item and because the only reliable information about these stockpiles is ten years out of date.”

What is more clear, however, is that illegal ivory is for sale in thousands of unregulated markets and shops all over the world, but particularly in North, West and Central Africa, in China, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, and in Germany and the UK. A study by Martin, Nigel Hunter and Tom Milliken estimated that these markets could be handling as much as 83 tonnes of ivory every year, most of it from Central Africa. That’s the equivalent of around 12,000 elephants.

What is perhaps most surprising about this research is that the consumption of ivory now appears to be higher in Africa than it is in Asia. Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has emerged as a global hub of the worked-ivory trade, where carvers process as much as 19 tonnes of ivory every year. Surveys by Martin and Dan Stiles recently found more than 11,000 ivory items for sale in 50 souvenir shops in Sudan and a further 10,700 in Egypt. Their previous work has identified other significant unregulated markets in Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, DRC, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe.

Studies have shown that the buyers include European and Asian diplomats, the French military, Asian businessmen, UN staff, West African traders and expatriates and tourists from Europe, North America and Asia. Not only do they want souvenirs, some are buying significant quantities for commercial use elsewhere.

Martin and Stiles’ report on Sudanese shops highlights the role played by Chinese expatriates working in Sudan in the construction, oil and mining sectors, estimating that they account for around three quarters of all trade there. There is evidence to suggest that the Chinese are fuelling demand in other African countries including Cameroon, the DRC and Zimbabwe.

Renewed incentive

Many conservationists argue that the CITES Conference of Parties encouraged poaching for ivory when it voted in 1997 to transfer the elephants populations of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to Appendix II. In doing so, it allowed those countries to make regulated sales of stockpiled ivory gathered by their wildlife authorities as a result of natural deaths and culls. The first of these took place in 1999, when Japan bought 58 tonnes.

Although no research has examined the effect on illegal killing of this event, it sent out all the wrong signals, says Leakey, and undermined the good publicity that had been generated ten years previously. “The sale loosened consumer caution and suggested that it’s OK to buy ivory again.”

Mike Fay agrees. “The impression that it gave to the world at large is that the elephant population was safe and there was a sustainable supply of ivory and that if it was being sold through the official channels of government then it was more acceptable to buy ivory again.”

According to Travers, the sale gave the poachers and illegal traders a renewed incentive by re-establishing a perceived market value for ivory. “The 58 tonnes was sold for around US$86/kilo. Now, if you’re a poacher in the field and you hear that governments are selling ivory at that price, you’re going to start killing elephants again.”

Despite these warnings, in 2000, the CITES conference of parties downgraded South Africa’s elephants to Appendix II and, two years later, voted to allow a second regulated sale of stockpiled ivory – this time, a total of 60 tonnes from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. Two important conditions were attached to the sale: that all range states should supply baseline data that would allow scientists to assess whether increases in illegal elephant killings were, indeed, related to CITES decisions; and that the proposed importing countries (in this case, China and Japan) had adequate legislation and international trade controls in place.

As Geographical went to press, the CITES Standing Committee was meeting in Geneva to assess whether these conditions had been met and whether to authorise the sale. CITES’ MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) programme had received the required baseline data from 90 per cent of the range states and had been promised the remainder by the end of the year. And China and Japan had submitted reports on their efforts to regulate trade.

While it seems Japan may get the go-ahead, doubts remain about China’s suitability. “None of the 60 tonnes should go to China,” says Martin. “The Chinese can’t control the ivory coming into the country: I believe the majority would leave the country again, so it would simply act as an entrepot.”

However, conservationists fear that even if the appropriate conditions are met, it may be the final straw for some populations of elephants. “Some populations are on the brink of extinction, particularly in West Africa,” says Ian Redmond, wildlife consultant and co-founder of Elefriends, the lobby group that helped achieve the ivory ban. “It won’t take much to tip them over the edge. By the time MIKE has gathered enough information to demonstrate whether or not the CITES sales have an effect on poaching, it may be too late.”

That isn’t to say that MIKE hasn’t been a valuable exercise, he continues. “MIKE has paid to put people on the ground to gather data, often surveying populations that have never been studied before. And this is of great value to conservationists. But this should be happening anyway, regardless of the ivory sales.”

There are concerns, however, that MIKE won’t be able to accurately assess the impact on all elephant populations. The Species Survival Network’s Elephant Working Group, which assesses elephant trade issues on behalf of more than 80 wildlife conservation and animal protection organisations worldwide, points out that some of the information is weighted towards protected areas and so may not identify significant levels of poaching that take place outside parks and reserves. “On this basis,” says Travers, “the Standing Committee’s decision may be dangerously ill-informed.”

Travers speaks for many conservationists when he advocates a precautionary approach. “To experiment with more sales of ivory when we have clearly not got to grips with the resurgent illegal trade would be a huge mistake,” he says. “And it would have all sorts of negative connotations for the future.”

If this sale goes ahead, we could see the floodgates open, warns Michael Wamithi, head of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s elephant programme. “The Southern African countries have tested the water,” he says. “If they succeed, we’ll see many other countries putting their ivory on the table next year at the CITES conference of parties in The Hague.” As well as the three involved in the current sale, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe all have stockpiles that they might be interested in selling, he says. “Kenya and the DRC also have stockpiles, but are unlikely to come forward at present. But who knows what might happen in the future?”

This isn’t just a view held by wildlife campaigners. At the Elephant Symposium in Accra, Ghana, in August, representatives of wildlife authorities from 19 African countries called for a total ban on the ivory trade and for all elephant populations to be returned to CITES Appendix I.

Missing the point

While conservationists continue to argue against the regulated sales, they are missing the point, says Nigel Hunter, director of MIKE. “The focus on the Southern African sales has diverted attention away from the real issue: that for more than ten years, poaching has been increasing in Central Africa to supply the unregulated markets in Africa and Asia.”

Getting these under control has to be the priority, he says. “It’s important to remember that the Southern African sales are of legally sourced ivory. Whether or not they go ahead, there will still be poachers as long as these illegal markets continue to trade. We should be putting emphasis on getting law and order in these African countries, and looking for ways to make things happen legally and sustainably, which prevent illegal activity.”

Martin points out that the CITES secretariat has already urged parties to close down unregulated sales of ivory, but so far, only Ethiopia has taken any significant action. “We’ve known that these markets have been selling large amounts of ivory for more than ten years now,” says Martin. “It’s frustrating that very little is being done. It’s about time we saw some action.”

Travers agrees that cracking down on these markets is important. But it shouldn’t be regarded as the only solution, he says. “Even if we managed to close down all the unregulated markets around the world, there would still be a demand for illegal ivory coming from countries such as China and Japan.”

As long as ivory is traded legally, it will be traded illegally, he says. “That’s why maintaining an outright ban is so important. The problem is that, at the moment, we have this hybrid situation with a huge illegal trade, significant legal trade and more calls for there to be the legitimisation of the so-called controlled trade. But all the controlled trade does is control the bit you can control. It does nothing to control the bit you can’t control.”

The fact is that we shouldn’t be trading in ivory at all, he says. “The only effective way to stop the poaching of elephants for ivory is to outlaw any kind of trade. And that means not only upholding the international ban, but cutting out the domestic trade and asking every country to take their stockpile permanently out of circulation. We have to remove ivory from the agenda, just as we have done with tiger skin and rhino horn. Only in that way do we stand a chance of bringing this situation under control.”