National Geographic Society Newsroom

Elephant Ivory Sales Stir Controversy

Photo by Jodi Cobb/NGS The first ivory auction in ten years sold over seven tons of tusks to Chinese and Japanese bidders in Namibia today, raising more than U.S. $1,200,000 for elephant conservation, the Associated Press reported. The sales will continue over the next two weeks in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. In total, nearly...

Elephant ivory 1.jpg

Photo by Jodi Cobb/NGS

The first ivory auction in ten years sold over seven tons of tusks to Chinese and Japanese bidders in Namibia today, raising more than U.S. $1,200,000 for elephant conservation, the Associated Press reported.

The sales will continue over the next two weeks in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. In total, nearly 110 tons of ivory — harvested from more than 10,000 elephants — are being offered in four sales sanctioned by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Environmental groups are furious.

Elephant ivory 2].jpg

“Both China and Japan have been approved as trading partners for this ivory and are known to be among the world’s largest illegal ivory markets,” the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) Elephants Program director, and former director of Kenya Wildlife Service, Michael Wamithi, said. “Allowing this exorbitant amount of ivory to flood the market, considering the level of elephant poaching occurring today, is just plain irresponsible.”

The sale could open the floodgates to illegal poaching, the Environmental Investigation Agency, (EIA) warned. Based in London, U.K., and Washington, D.C., EIA investigates and exposes illegal wildlife trade.

EIA Campaigns Director Julian Newman said: “CITES’ own comprehensive international monitoring system for tracking illegal elephant products has shown a steady increase in ivory seizures — driven by a rising demand for ivory.

“This coupled with a lack of sufficient checks in importing countries such as China and instability in some African range states, could easily drag us back to the dark and bloody days of the 1980s when we were seeing around 200 elephants killed by poachers a week.”

The sale was made despite EIA’s revelation in July that a hundred tons of ivory had gone missing from China’s government controlled ivory stockpiles — most likely through illegal sales, Newman said.

Illustration by Christopher Klein/NGS

EIA has argued that the missing ivory, exposed in a previously unpublished Chinese document, confirmed China’s lack of control over its ivory trade, and gave clear grounds to refuse the country’s request to trade legally in ivory for the first time since the 1989 international ivory ban was passed. 

“EIA’s research has highlighted serious flaws in both China’s and Japan’s enforcement systems, poor prosecution rates, inadequate registration and major loopholes in data collection on ivory,” Newman said.

“Furthermore, there have been recent reports from African countries, particularly central and western states stating that poaching has risen sharply.

“Also Kenyan wildlife rangers say that Chinese workers in the country have been implicated in many new cases. A number have been arrested on suspicion of smuggling ivory this year and Chinese nationals have been convicted of smuggling in 22 out of 37 African elephant range states.


Photo by Michael Nichols/NGS

“The sheer scale of ivory smuggling to China, which makes it the number one destination, furthermore indicates involvement of organised crime syndicates,” EIA said.

Elephant ivory 7.jpg

Photo of ivory confiscated at an undisclosed location courtesy International Fund for Animal Welfare

IFAW’s 2007 China ivory trade poll report highlighted the low awareness of the ivory control system and also citizens’ unwillingness to comply with this framework. According to the report, among the 14.5 per cent that were actually admitted consumers of ivory, 75.7 per cent would willingly violate the control system in order to obtain ivory at a cheaper price.

Much evidence also exists that Japan’s domestic market is out of control, IFAW says.

“Rangers on the front lines in elephant range states continue to lose their lives protecting elephants from poaching,” Wamithi said. “Developing countries continue to bear the brunt of burgeoning Asian markets. By permitting legal trade in ivory, we are only encouraging the laundering of stocks by poachers, thereby increasing illegal hunting activities. The situation is very clear: more ivory in the marketplace equals many more dead elephants — and rangers.”

elephant ivory 5.jpg

Photo by Chris Johns/NGS

CITES approved a nine-year ban on ivory trade after the current stockpiles sales are completed.

“This impending moratorium on international ivory trade presents a critical opportunity for the international community to focus time and energy on elephant conservation initiatives,” said Jason Bell-Leask, IFAW’s Southern Africa Regional Office Director. “We need to be vigilant if we want to succeed in maintaining the integrity of elephant populations in Africa and Asia for coming generations. The future of elephants is clearly in our hands at this point.”

elephant ivory 6.jpg

Photo courtesy CITES

The proceeds of the sales must be used exclusively for elephant conservation and community development programmes within or adjacent to the elephant range, CITES said in a statement today. “The revenues are expected to boost the countries’ capacity to conserve biodiversity, strengthen enforcement controls and contribute to the livelihoods of the rural people in southern Africa.”

Today’s ivory sales in Namibia raised funds for the Game Product Trust Fund to promote conservation in communities where elephants range, the AP reported. “Without a way of benefiting from elephants, elephants can only be seen as a liability or loss to rural communities, who lose significant subsistence crops and even human lives,” Leon Jooste, Namibia’s deputy minister of environment and tourism, told reporters.

Commenting on the round of sales today, The New York Times said it was a question never easily resolved: “Can the trade in ivory ever be conducted in a way that protects elephants from poachers? Or is it simply too naïve to assume that poachers will not always find a conduit — legal or illegal — to market their wares?”


Elephant ivory 3.jpg

Photo by Michael Nichols/NGS

Elephant populations of the four countries selling ivory are in Appendix II of CITES, which means that, even though they are not necessarily now threatened with extinction, the trade in their products is strictly regulated. Recent studies concluded that over 312,000 elephants live in these four countries and that their number has increased in recent years, accprding to CITES.

Earlier NatGeo News Watch Entry:

Elephants’ Legendary Memories May Be Key to Their Survival

Related National Geographic News stories:

Ebay Bans Ivory Sales Amid Conservation Concerns

17 Elephants Butchered for Ivory in African Park

Record Ivory Cache Traced to Zambia Elephants, DNA Shows

Illegal Ivory Trade Boosted by Angola Craft Markets, Conservationists Say

U.S. One of Largest Ivory Markets, New Study Says

Elephants Decimated in Congo Park; China Demand Blamed

Ivory Sale Gets Green Light From Wildlife Trade Watchdog

Asian Gangsters Drive African Elephant Slaughter, Report Says

South Africa May Kill Elephants to Manage Populations



About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn