By Brendan Moyle
Poaching levels for African elephants have now accelerated to a point where about 25,000 are being killed a year. The population in Africa is projected to decline by 20% in the next decade. This is starting to get people very worried.
The illegal trade in elephants has several important features. The first is that there is a separation between final consumers of carvings and poachers who procure the tusks. There is a long supply chain with many parties along the route. And importantly, many of these act strategically. They’re thinking about the future, where demand is going and what effect enforcement is going to have.
The second feature is that ivory isn’t consumed in its raw form. It has to be transformed into something of value by carvings. This process isn’t instant. For an elaborate and large carving like a Guangzhou dragon-ball this can take months. The number of skilled carvers is limited and the tools used to carve ivory aren’t sophisticated. There’s a limit to how much can be transformed into carvings.
The third feature is that ivory is durable. It can be stored for long periods without deteriorating. This may require some environmental safeguards. In the dry air of Beijing for instance, humidity levels have to be increased. But other than that, tusks can potentially last for years. This is why many governments have stockpiles. Another point is the bad guys have stockpiles too.
One way to look at the illegal trade is to break the seizures down into different categories. Seizure data has been accumulated globally as part of the ETIS since 1996. While the weight of seizures is often aggregated, this masks some important differences. Some guy smuggling a small piece of raw ivory in his suitcase, isn’t the same as the criminal conspiracy shipping four tons of tusks in a container.
What I’ve done here is taken the ETIS seizure data for raw ivory (by weight) and divided it into four categories. These are the seizures up to less than 10kg (Raw1), the seizures from 10kg but less than 100 (Raw2), the seizures from 100kg but less than 1000, and the seizures that are more than 1000kg. This isn’t the total amount of ivory being illegal trafficked. It is a sample based on seizures. I’ve also expressed the data as a two-year moving average to iron out a little volatility.
The data graphed above is also stacked so that the top line will measure the total ivory seized while the other lines break it down into proportions. There were no big seizures in 2007-2008. More....