By Grace Gabriel
The ivory trade does not follow a neat economic model, and calls for a regulated legal market are naïve and misguided.
I began working on ivory trade issues the year CITES approved the first so-called “one-off” ivory sale to Japan in 1997.
I have gone undercover to investigate ivory markets and spoken directly with wildlife traders without interpreters.
I have witnessed how the grey markets created by the legal ivory trade have confused consumers, stimulated rising demand, and produced opportunities for criminals banking on the extinction of elephants.
I have seen it all from a unique vantage point—inside China, where the ivory trade flourishes.
So I write in response to Daniel Stiles’s misleading opinion piece advocating for legal ivory trade—“Can elephants survive a continued ivory trade ban?”—on September 15 in National Geographic’s “A Voice for Elephants.”
I find the piece full of misconceptions and skewed logic, which at times ignores the realities on the ground in both Africa and Asia. I find his contention that ivory trading can happen in a vacuum without consideration of the social, cultural, political, and economic context in China particularly naïve.
His proposed scheme of regulated legal ivory trading as a solution to the elephant poaching crisis is flawed. He bases his assumptions on economic theories found in textbooks. Yet, anyone who understands the complexities of market dynamics and human behavior knows that a legalized ivory trade would be in reality a complete disaster.
Those dedicated to saving elephants have worked too long and too hard putting trade bans into place to undermine them now with action that distracts us from the work we must be doing to close loopholes and solidify enforcement. What’s more, in most cases these calls for a legal trade would invalidate or even erase our endeavors to decrease demand for wildlife products like ivory.
The CITES Ivory Trade Ban Worked Until It Was Undermined
Even Stiles admits that “after the CITES ban, demand fell in the West owing to all the negative publicity related to buying ivory that accompanied the run-up to the ban. East Asia’s largest ivory export market withered. East Asia was left with huge ivory stockpiles and falling demand. Prices fell, ivory market activity slumped.”
Reduced market activity and lower ivory prices weakened the incentive of poaching elephants for their ivory. The ivory trade ban allowed African elephant populations to start recovering from the devastating massacres in the 1970s and 80s that cut their size from 1.3 million to 600,000
Looking at the elephant population trends throughout the 1980s, it is not difficult to imagine that most elephant populations in West, central, and East Africa would have disappeared in the early 1990s had the 1989 ivory trade ban not gone into effect.
In China, the ivory trade ban coincided with economic reform that shifted state enterprises to a private economy. Realizing that there was no hope of more ivory imports in the foreseeable future, state-owned ivory carving factories downsized and shrank production. Old ivory carving masters stopped taking in apprentices, resigning to apply their skills to creating masterpieces using the available ivory stockpiles in the country.
If the trade ban had been supported with sustained demand-reduction efforts, poaching would have continued to decrease, allowing a long-term rebound of wild elephant populations. Instead, the ban was sabotaged by pro-trade efforts that revived and stimulated demand.
Only eight years after the trade ban, CITES member countries at the 1997 Conference of the Parties (CoP10) approved proposals to allow a “one-off” ivory stockpile sale. When that sale took place in 1999, Japan purchased 49.57 metric tonnes of ivory from Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.
Impact of Ivory Sale to Japan
China felt an immediate impact of the ivory sale to Japan. In a letter to the CITES Secretariat in 2002, China’s CITES Management Authority wrote:
“In recent years, the illegal international trade in ivory has become a major concern to China. Since 1996, a total of 200 ivory smuggling cases have been detected and about 35,967 kg of ivory seized. Both the seizure numbers and the volume of illegal ivory traded have increased dramatically since 1999. The decision made by CITES, which allowed the one-off sale of ivory to Japan is one of the main factors that has contributed to the increase of illicit trade of ivory products in China. Raw tusks have been confiscated in all of the major seizures since 1999. Many Chinese misunderstood the decision and believed that the international trade in ivory had been resumed.”
To defend his proposal for more legal ivory trade to China, Stiles tried to find proof that the 1999 ivory sale to Japan had no effect on the market. All he came up with was to cite “ivory industry business personnel in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan [who\ did not believe that the 1999 southern African ivory auctions had a significant effect on either internal or external ivory demand.”
This would be like asking the fox guarding the hen house how the hens are doing.
It was of course to the advantage of the Chinese ivory traders, business owners, and investors to intentionally downplay the effects of the ivory sale. They knew that admitting anything to the contrary could hurt their chance of bidding for ivory from future sales.
In fact these same businessmen were lobbying the government to apply at UNESCO for “ivory carving” to be considered as an “intangible cultural heritage.” By 2004, they had successfully persuaded China’s wildlife authorities to introduce an ivory product registration and certification system to meet the conditions required by CITES for ivory purchases.
Warning Signs Ignored
Instead of heeding the multiple warning signs from the first ivory sale, CITES approved the second ivory sale in 2007 and allowed China to join Japan as an ivory trading partner. At an auction the subsequent year, a total of 108 metric tonnes of ivory from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana were sold to China and Japan.
Importing new legal ivory into China unfortunately created and sustained grey markets that have confused consumers, thwarted law enforcement, and opened opportunities for criminals to reap high profits. Any stigma created by the initial trade ban started to relax as a result of these grey markets, and demand started to escalate.
Information obtained from China’s Auction Association showed that 11,100 pieces of ivory carvings were auctioned in 2011 on the mainland alone (excluding Hong Kong) for a total sales volume of US$94 million, representing an increase of 170 percent from 2010.
The dramatic increase in the price of ivory reflects a strong demand for ivory in China. With other investment options diminishing, ivory and the parts and products of other endangered wildlife species are increasingly promoted by traders and investors for their so-called “inflation proof investment value.” Ivory is considered “white gold” by people seeking to demonstrate their wealth and status. The rarer the animal, the more it is coveted by wealthy consumers and investors, a growing cohort in China. More....