Everything you ever wanted to know about the illegal ivory trade, as explained by a leading elephant expert

Mary Rice has held a deep affinity with elephants for as long as she can remember.

Today Executive Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)—an independent campaigning organisation committed to protecting the natural world from environmental crime—and team leader of their Elephant Campaign, the author of Heat, Dust and Dreams has been fighting for the welfare of wild elephants in a professional capacity since 1997.

As a result, Mary knows more than just about anyone of the grim effect the illicit global trade in ivory is having on the Africa’s dwindling pachyderm populations. So we tracked down the elephant expert to ask her a little bit more about the blackmarket trade of tusks and the stark reality of ivory trafficking in the world right now.

Jumping straight into the topic, what did the world’s ivory trade look like pre-2000?

In the 1980s, elephants were under severe threat as a result of poaching due to the fact that there was a massive global market in ivory. So, because of that threat, and because it was completely uncontrolled and uncontrollable, an international ban on all international ivory trade was introduced in 1989. From then up until the late 90s the ban was in place and, as a result, the market for ivory bottomed out. There was a respite for elephants and their populations started to recover.

Then in 1999, the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) parties agreed to allow a one-off sale of ivory from Botswana and Namibia and Zimbabwe to Japan. From that point forward, what we’ve seen is a growing number of incidents of poaching and illegal seizures. There was a second sale in 2008; China and Japan were allowed to buy 106 tons of ivory, again from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
By 2009, we’d seen the largest number of large-scale seizures on record (more than 40 tons). They indicate the involvement of organised criminal networks in the trade. It’s an industrial scale trade that’s taking place.

Even if you calculate conservatively that customs intercept between 15 and 20% of illegal goods, then you can assume that the amount of ivory that’s actually making its way on to the market is much greater. And this is evidenced by the catastrophic decline of some elephant populations in Africa, namely the forest elephants, which declined by 63%, and then Tanzania’s elephants by nearly 70%—all in the space of just six years.

Ivory trade routes map. Courtesy of EIA
Ivory trade routes map. Courtesy of EIA

Okay, and just to go back to these two legitimate sales—how was this ivory sourced originally? Was there a state cull of elephants or something? 

No, no. So what happens is there are two types of stockpile. There is a legal stockpile, which is made up of ivory that has been recovered from elephants who’ve died naturally, or from animal management practices. That might include problem animal control for instance. But it’s all done under the auspices of management; it’s part of a government approved management plan.

Then you have illegal stock, which is ivory that has been illegally sourced and then seized. When these two sales took place, the only stock that is approved for sale would be for the legal stock. CITES approved the sale of that stock but not the illegal stock. Does that make sense?

Completely. But why would CITES agree to such a sale in the first place if it was going to increase the global demand for ivory?

So in 2008, when that second sale took place, there were already indications that poaching was on the rise. There were concerns about the poaching being driven by a demand for ivory, predominantly in China. The rationale was that if the legal ivory was released in bulk, it would flood the market and thereby remove the need or incentive to source ivory from illegal sources. By flooding the market in China you would somehow stop the criminal networks procuring and acquiring illegal stock.

But what actually happened in China is the ivory was then sold on to registered dealers and traders at a massive markup from the original procurement price; from being sold at auction for $160 per kilo to being sold to the retail at anywhere between $450 to $1,500 a kilo. So what then happened was that the price of the legal ivory was so high the black market networks could come in and undercut the legal price. From an investigation we did in China in 2010 we found as much as 90 per cent of the ivory available for sale on the marketplace at that time came from illegal sources.

On top of that, not only did the Chinese mark up the prices massively, they also set up a plan to release their stock in a limited way on an annual basis.

Instead of flooding the market in one go.

Yes, and then that obviously put up the price too; it had the complete opposite effect to what CITES had intended.

What system did China set up for the distribution of this legally-sourced ivory stockpile?

They set up an ID system, so that every piece of ivory above a certain weight had its own unique identification card like a credit card, with a photograph on it. But of course what then happened is there that were any number of ways for that system to be abused. There were loopholes, and obviously, you have an entire industry that are making fake cards and passing them off as the real thing.

What also happens is when a trader gets a piece of ivory from the government, he or she may turn it into a figurine for instance, but before they can sell it they also have to obtain a registration card with a unique identification number on it. So you have to take a photograph of your figurine, send it all off, pay for your certificate, it comes back, and then you put your figurine on display in your store. What we know happens instead is that some unscrupulous people use the legal market to launder illegal stuff through, by making multiple figurines that look exactly the same. They will then they will offer to sell the figurine to a customer at a reduced cost without the certificate.

Moving on, I think there’s now a growing acknowledgement and a growing recognition that markets, legal markets in fact, stimulate the demand for ivory rather than control it. It’s just not possible to have a sustainable trade. Countries like the U.S. and China have now made verbal commitments that they will close their domestic markets and a number of countries have taken the unilateral step of burning their stockpiles—a statement to say that they will not engage in ivory trade going forward. That their ivory only has value on a living animal. 

Ivory stockpile burning in Tsavo, Kenya in 2011. Photo: EIA
Ivory stockpile burning in Tsavo, Kenya in 2011. Photo: EIA

But aren’t there a number of countries that are resistant to the idea of burning a stockpile; they’d rather try and sell their resource?

Absolutely. South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe are very much of the view that ‘sustainable utilisation’ is the best way forward. The argument is that they should be allowed to generate revenue from natural resources [in this case, elephants] to plow back into looking after those same resources. So, South Africa maintains that it needs to sell its ivory in order to generate income that could then be used to protect elephants going forward. But there is no scientific or physical evidence saying that is the case. It’s a very polarised argument. 

Concerning the illegal trafficking networks themselves: has there been any research done on the composition and make up of the criminal organisations behind the trade?

That’s a difficult question to answer to be honest. Generally, these operational outfits are made up of a number of individuals who bring their own particular skills to the table, from the person who goes out and procures the ivory in the field, to the guy that collects it, brings it to the place in an urban centre where it’s hidden, then gathered into bulk to be containerised and shipped out. And the dodgy customs people, there might be corrupt police involved. There might also be politicians who have been paid off too. 

Is there any evidence that these networks are linked with established organisations such as the Japanese Yakuza?

Yakuza, no, we don’t have any evidence of that. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were, but we have no evidence to say that’s the case. Some of the people who are involved in some of these trades are very, very dangerous, because you’re looking at large amounts of money here.

Two questions to end on: what do you think the global ivory trade will look like in 10 years’ time, and what to do you hope it will look like?

I would hope that there would be absolutely no ivory trade in 10 years’ time. That would be my wish. Between now and that point, I think what we’re going to see over the next few years, hopefully, is the closure of domestic markets. Those markets are not subject to international law, only sovereign law. So it’s up to each individual country to determine whether or not it will have an ivory trade.

And increasingly, what we’re seeing is countries coming to the table and saying, ‘Right, we’re going to close our markets.’ So if you close your domestic market both at the source and at the consuming end, then there is limited opportunity to get illegal ivory into the market place. And if CITES continues to impose its international ban, which is still in place despite those two one off sales, there should be no movement of ivory from country A to country B legally.

So I would like to see closure of domestic markets in the short term and ultimately in 10 years’ time, the status quo globally that there would be no ivory trade anywhere.

Thanks Mary.


[geoip-content not_country=”CA”]

Want to learn more on the devastating effects ivory poaching is having on elephants? Wild Orphans: The Giants Of Tsavo—Kenya is now streaming on Love Nature

‘A baby elephant wanders the African savanna alone; her parents killed by ivory poachers. The Nairobi elephant orphanage can provide her with nourishment and shelter, but equally important is the mental comfort she will need if she is to survive.’

Sign up and watch now with a 30-day free trial of our video streaming service, for the best natural history documentaries on demand, any time. [/geoip-content]