Opinion: Blood Ivory and More Dead Elephants

Photograph by Bruce Dale/National Geographic Creative

By Andrew Wyatt and Doug Bandow  

Nothing embodies the power and majesty of wild Africa like the iconic elephant. Tragically, across the continent you can see the devastating impact poaching has had on this keystone species. “Blood ivory” poachers ply their trade from the killing fields of the African savanna to the major markets in Asia. Decades of poor policy have resulted in dead elephants littering the African landscape.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is making policy even worse.  It is calling for more “ivory crush,” the destruction of existing ivory stores, and a ban on the legal trade of ivory within the United States. These proposals reflect a desperate misunderstanding of the illegal market and will only accelerate the slaughter of African elephants.

For instance, in early April Belgium joined the U.S., China, and host of other nations in the growing Ivory crush movement—supposedly to “send a warning” to ivory poachers. Alas, decreasing the world’s stockpile of ivory actually drives prices for blood ivory upward, thereby increasing profits for sophisticated poaching syndicates.

In early February, the Obama administration introduced the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Two weeks later, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it would effectively ban all domestic ivory sales, even of antique objects.  This step would punish the law-abiding while encouraging them to look for illegal outlets for their collections and inventories.

Unfortunately, the administration is playing the politics of deception, or at least deliberate misinformation. There is no doubt that poaching poses a threat to thousands of African elephants. But exaggerating claims for political advantage interferes with developing an effective conservation strategy.

FWS Director Dan Ashe and others have been circulating misleading information on elephant deaths, poaching, and the illegal ivory trade to advance an ideological agenda rather than to protect elephants. Among the more serious errors: “More than 35,000 elephants were killed in 2013 for the illegal ivory trade.” According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) program of Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), 25,000 elephants were illegally killed in Africa in 2011 and 22,000 were killed in 2012. While still unacceptably high, it is far less than the 35,000 (with some claims hitting 50,000) that has become the rallying cry for those campaigning to ban even old, legal ivory sales.

Moreover, not all of these elephants were killed by poachers. Many were killed by farmers and villagers, for whom elephants are dangerous pests. The World Wildlife Fund estimates elephants killed for their tusks at approximately 20,000 per year. The figures for 2013 have not yet been released, but probably are of the same magnitude as before. In fact, John Scanlon, CITES Secretary-General, recently stated that he saw “encouraging signs” that poaching may be stabilizing.

“The United States is the second-largest market for ivory in the world.” This statement, although true, is misleading. According to a study of domestic ivory trade by two wildlife specialists entitled The USA’s Ivory Markets—How Much a Threat to Elephants?:  “The USA has the second-largest ivory market in the world, after China-Hong Kong. The illegal proportion of it, however, is much smaller than any country in Asia and most countries in Africa. The USA ivory market poses a minimal threat to elephants.” FWS spokeswoman Sandra Cleva said: “The vast majority of U.S. seizures involve small non-commercial quantities, a fact that refutes the claim that large-scale illegal ivory trade exists in the United States.” According to the monitoring network TRAFFIC, Thailand is actually the second-largest market for illegal ivory in the world.

The fact that supposedly responsible government officials knowingly mislead the public demonstrates how the ivory debate has become politicized, with an emphasis on symbolism rather than solutions. Fighting poaching and stemming the flow of “blood ivory” is difficult. It is far easier to feign empathy by punishing the innocent owners of ivory objects, even if decades or centuries old.

The Ivory crush is merely foolish, inflating illegal ivory prices and denying revenues to the developing states that contain most elephants. Worse is the plan to render legally valueless virtually every piece of ivory in America, even though accumulated over many years in compliance with the law.

The administration already has barred the import of ivory, even if centuries old with peerless provenance, punishing American collectors and dealers. Craftsmen repairing or working with old and legal raw ivory could lose their livelihoods. Owners of vintage musical instruments and guns are prohibited from leaving and returning to the U.S. with them.

Any item containing a tiny fleck of ivory in it could trigger federal legal action. The administration said it will not target “knick-knacks,” but people with hundreds, thousands, or millions of dollars worth of ivories will find no legal buyers, since the administration plans to require documentation that does not exist. And the easiest way for FWS employees to boost their enforcement statistics would be to target confused collectors and dealers rather than accomplished criminals who operate in the shadows.

Obvious alternatives exist. Any plan should target poachers and their U.S. contacts. FWS should enlist legitimate collectors and dealers in helping to uncover the illegal trade, rather than treat the law-abiding as enemies. FWS could issue a “passport” for musicians and gun owners to carry their possessions back and forth. If the agency—with the consent of Congress, rather than in a secretive rule-making process—is determined to more clearly delineate old legal ivory, it could phase in a registration system for legal ivory objects.

Those who own and work in ivory are as appalled as everyone else about the slaughter of elephants for their tusks. But the policy adopted should actually achieve its end, rather than encourage the trade in “blood ivory.” Moreover, the government should not punish law abiding, tax paying citizens who followed long-standing law in accumulating ivory. Federal policy should be both effective and fair.

See related: “Opinion: Walking the International Talk to Help Elephants.”

Andrew Wyatt is a government affairs consultant who works exclusively in the wildlife sector and is a founder of USARK U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers. Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. 

  • Erika Walsh

    Very well stated. We cannot continue to legislate based on ideology instead of facts. In so doing, these animals will be lost to extinction and not saved.

    “Ivory crush” is a tasty sound byte that makes us feel good while further jeopardizing the welfare of elephants.

  • Dex Kotze

    I’m a bit surprised at the posting of these comments here. Wyatt certainly is no expert on elephants, but more on herpetoculture. On his own site reference is made to $1.2 billion that reptile “industry” generates a year. It does not refer to trade in skin. The illegal market of python skin alone is over $1 billion a year. His comments in this article may be of interest to those unfamiliar with the elephant crisis in Africa, but for Africans like myself his comments are badly researched. “Punishing American owners”? Surely Americans have punished African endangered wildlife enough in the 19th century when they caused the destruction of millions of elephants for nearly 100 years to manufacture piano keys, billiard balls and buttons out of ivory in Deep River, Connecticut. The London Wildlife conference in Feb 2014 showed clear intent from African nations, totalling 48 countries around the world that gathered real experts. Once off ivory sales in 1999 and 2008 immediately caused the price to skyrocket, accompanied by a huge increase in poaching. Africa’s dense forests make it difficult to estimate numbers poached. Vultures and other predators like hyenas can remove traces of carcasses in a matter of days. I much prefer Bryan Christy’s though provoking, well researched material.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Dex- I don’t claim to be an expert on African elephants. Maybe you are, I don’t know. But you are certainly not an expert regarding ivory trade in the US. You may prefer Mr. Christy’s writing to mine. That is certainly your right. However, I don’t have the luxury of picking who I “prefer” to be right. My statistics may not be to your liking, but they come from the real experts on ivory trade and illegal elephant deaths. I interviewed Dan Stiles who has published papers on ivory trade that are at odds with what you “prefer” to believe. Further, I researched the findings of MIKE, TRAFFIC and FWS. You may “prefer” not to acknowledge these findings and statistics, but it does not change the fact that the acts of the US government on this issue are admittedly symbolic and have little or nothing to do with the current poaching crisis in Africa.

    ps- my work with the reptile keepers was strictly within the context of legal trade of captive bred US specimens. Foreign skin and illegal trade I find abhorrent. You seem to have difficulty differentiating between legal and illegal trade.

  • Susan Campisi

    How John Scanlon of CITES can say there are “encouraging signs” poaching may be stabilizing is beyond comprehension. (What does that even mean? Even the 22,000 a year estimate is horrific, unacceptable, and unsustainable.) Elephants are being pushed to the brink of extinction over ivory, and the “legal” trade only serves as a cover for the illegal trade. We need to evolve and move beyond the blood ivory trade. How can anyone see a thing of beauty in an elephant body part, representing death and suffering? I fully support the wave of ivory crushes around the world as small steps toward a worldwide ban on the trade, the only thing that will give elephants a fighting chance at survival.

    Here are some facts to consider, Erika Walsh: http://www.bornfreeusa.org/a9_ivorys_curse.php

  • Jen Samuel

    This opinion piece is outrageously corrupt. I am shocked to see National Geographic run such a misguided and dangerously fallacious piece. Close to 100 elephants are butchered each day. Ivory belongs to elephants only. The mindset that their tusks are a product which belong to man is surely a lie spun from the devil himself. Ban ALL ivory trade and sign the White House petition today to make it so; http://wh.gov/lGl3J

  • Ashley McAvey

    I am an elephant activist and all I have are facts. This article is an outrage. Wyatt and Bandow talk about “punishing American collectors and dealers”. Are you serious? Look at some of the graphic images of the slaughter of these beings. Look at elephant heads hacked off. Look at orphaned elephants dying of starvation as they refuse to leave their murdered mothers. Look at the connections (real, factual!) to TERRORISM. Look at the amazingly brave and stoic African rangers dying to protect them. Look at the hit the poaching crisis is having on tourism and the African ecology. The crushes are showing ivory is no longer relevant. It is worthless. Once people finally realize this fact and the fact that any ivory trade- regardless of the era of its origin- will drive this keystone species to extinction. If you have ivory, you can keep it. If you’re upset about the fact that you can’t sell it because the trade is dead, make better investment decisions in the future. Ban ALL ivory trade and sign the White House petition today to make it so; http://wh.gov/lGl3J

  • Sajidha Bagha

    This article is misleading. All ivory stockpiles need to be destroyed and all domestic ivory markets shut down. Yes especially the one in China. The killing and poaching crises has been fueled because of the “legal” ivory trade. And as long as there is “legal” trade anywhere, the killing will continue. President Obama is taking the right steps.

  • Marianne Romano

    Shocking to read this in National Geographic!!! Who is responsible for allowing this misguided article to run? The fact is, ivory consumption has pushed Elephants to the brink of extinction. That alone is reason enough to make ivory illegal to buy or sell and implementing strict and mandatory jail sentence for violators. Another fact …. The Ivory trade is linked to funding terrorism. The fact is, a kilogram of elephant ivory can fetch $2,000 on the black market; the same amount of rhinoceros horn can command $65,000—more than cocaine or platinum. All told, illegal wildlife trafficking is an estimated $19-billion-a-year industry, which makes it the fourth most lucrative illicit activity in the world after the drug trade, counterfeiting and human trafficking.
    That money is bankrolling extremists, terrorists and other criminal groups around the globe. The Somali militant Islamist group and al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab—which claimed responsibility for the September terrorist attack that killed 67 people at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi—generates up to 40 percent of its funding from illegal ivory, according to a 2012 report from the Elephant Action League, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles. Other al Qaeda affiliates, rebel groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, as well as Boko Haram — the same extremist terrorist organization considered responsible for the kidnapping and torture of the Nigerian schoolgirls also get their funding from the illegal ivory trade. As a result, elephant and rhino poaching has surged to record levels.
    How anyone can defend the sale of ivory knowing these statics is unthinkable. Its like the republican party denying that global warming exists and refusing to do anything protect our planet. But I guess GREED makes people blind to what they don’t want to see. Ban ALL ivory trade and sign the White House petition today to make it so; http://wh.gov/lGl3J

  • Susan

    I agree, if we put all the stockpiled ivory on the market there wouldn’t be a demand there would be an over abundance. Wouldn’t that save the elephants?? No demand….supply with the stockpiles we already have.

  • Michael C Paredes

    The ivory trade is unethical. If you don’t care about ethics, then know that it is a BAD investment. If you haven’t sold it by now, too bad. The trade needs to be abolished in a civilized society. Collectors? Give me a break. If you’re an ivory collector, you need a new hobby. Anyone who is fighting for the ivory trade is out of touch with what it should mean to be human. It means taking responsibility for our power-not exploiting it. Or exploiting elephants.

  • Dwayne

    The confiscated ivory should be made into whatever artifacts that the world wants. It should be sold and the money shared with the conservationists. This would flood the market and make illegal ivory less wanted. The situation would spiral in the right direction. The elephants would be helped and legal and less deadly means for harvesting ivory could be maintained.

  • Neil Dampier

    This is a very poorly written article that displays a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the realities of elephant poaching and the ivory trade.
    The crushing of ivory stockpiles has no effect on the illegal ivory market as it does not remove stock from the market and thus has little to no effect on the price. It is widely accepted by every credible expert on the matter that the previous one off sales of ivory have directly contributed to the current surge in poaching not a reduction in demand or a flooding of the market as some would suggest.
    I am interested to know what the political advantage to FWS and the Obama administration that the authors hint at would be as a result of a complete ban on Ivory sales in the US?
    The exact number of poached elephants whether 20,000; 25,000 or 30,000 is not really relevant. What is relevant is that whatever number you pick from those mentioned by the authors the result is that at its continued pace elephant are heading towards extinction give or take a few years. What percentage of the elephant population do these numbers this represent. For example Selous Game reserve in Tanzania home to one of Africa’s largest elephant populations has lost 84% of its total population in recent years due to poaching not irate villagers (which is a tiny percentage of elephants killed anywhere in Africa as opposed to what the authors suggest). It is also important to note that the only credible non destructive method to distinguish new ivory from antique ivory.

  • Oskar musician

    The bisons were close to a small single crew of total extintion as well. The Am.’cowboys’ din’t even use or sell any part of them. Just to enjoy shooting. How to limit elephants’ tragedy?From my music knowledge nowadays we don’t use animal skins for drum heads anymore-there are plastic materials for that-far better sounding/endurance in comparisson.The drummers of that time claimed that drummer skins will never be replaced with any other synthetic/artificial materials.(To prevent consequnces or advaced procedures I wouldn’t reveal the story how you had to kill a donky to get a better/the best sounding skin of him(poor being)). The violin/guitar strings were made from animals’ intestines in the middle age. NO more TODAY…so there’s a PROOF -might be some alternatives/some other synthetic materials to replace the elphant’s ivory. To study a market very carefully someone can get even very rich with open a market of equivalents. This is just my little tiny,modest suggestion to the global problem. More a single man can’t do, except not buying anything-like ivory and share his opinion with the others. Regards

  • Andrea Speraw

    Why on earth would Nat Geo publish these opinions of men who know nothing of the facts or the science? Read their bios — they make their livings on the wildlife trade. They feign empathy and concern for wildlife and “expertise” in the subject, when clearly it’s about their bottom line. Anyone paying attention would know that the following well-respected organizations and scientists are urging Obama to hold tight to his ban: Jane Goodall, Phd, DBE; Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants; the International Fund for Animal Welfare; the World Wildlife Fund; the African Wildlife Foundation; the Association of Zoos and Aquariums; the Wildlife Conservation Network; the Wildlife Conservation Society, and many others. Shame on Nat Geo for allowing such sludge to be published under their title.

  • Ronald Orenstein

    I have worked on the ivory issue at CITES Conferences and elsewhere for over 25 years, and I am the author of “Ivory, Horn and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros poaching Crisis” (Firefly Books, 2014), so I believe I can claim some knowledge of this matter. I have no hesitation in saying that the views in this article are seriously – even dangerously – misinformed and misleading. It falls well below the standard of accuracy and expertise I have come to expect of National Geographic.

    The authors’ main arguments are based on three false assumptions. The first is that the Obama administration has inflated the crisis. However, the 35,000 figure is not an exaggeration but reflect the belief of elephant experts such as Iain Douglas-Hamilton that the MIKE figures – which apply only to specific study sites – underestimate the scale of the slaughter. Indeed, if you extrapolate ivory seizure data and calculate the number of animals killed based on a 10kg/tusk estimate the figures go above 40,000 for 2013. 35,000 probably represents a reasonable estimate that could be off by a few thousand either way.

    The second is the totally unwarranted claim that a substantial number of the elephants killed are “problem” animals killed by angry farmers, not poaching victims. I know of no figures that would support such a claim, and though certainly some animals are killed for this reason I have never heard any elephant biologist suggest that this represents more than a very small fraction of the total number.

    Third, the authors assume that destroying the US stockpile will increase the price of ivory on the market by restricting supply. I know that this view is held by a few experts, notably Daniel Stiles, but I believe it is fundamentally wrong. The US stockpile was never a factor in the market price of ivory because it did not form part of the available supply. It was never on the market and under US law could not be – so destroying it could not have affected the supply available or its price.

    However, stockpile destruction does serve a number of valuable purposes besides simply making a statement. The key to getting the poaching/organized crime connection under control, in my opinion (and that of many of my colleagues), is to get the price down to a level at which the extremely expensive job of smuggling ivory to end markets becomes unprofitable. Key to this is reducing demand, and stockpile destruction, by calling worldwide attention to the crime issue, can contribute to that reduction (we are already seeing this, I believe, in Hong Kong).

    Also, stockpiles in a number of countries are targets for large-scale ivory thefts (eg in Mozambique, Zambia and the Philippines), and destroying them would remove a major (and costly) security issue. However, for the US to encourage other countries to do this without having done the same itself would be unconvincing at best and hypocritical at worst. Now the US can say “we did it – why don’t you”?

    As to the suggestion that poaching is stabilizing according to John Scanlon – well, ask him of course, but I heard him speak only a few weeks ago and he said no such thing. I would note that poaching has now spread to the Kruger in South Africa, which recently lost its first elephant in years to poachers.

    I have no war with musicians etc, and I suspect in time that rules affecting them may be eased. However, for now we are in a terrible crisis that needs strong action and decisive leadership, and I commend President Obama for his actions – which may well, as groups like Al Shabaab continue to fund arms purchases with smuggled ivory, save human lives as well as elephants.

  • Nigel Goodman

    A promotion piece for wild life trade. Did they pay Nat Geo to write it ? The only evidence is that allowing more of a scarce product onto the market increases stockpiling and demand. There are not enough of any wild animal to meet the insatiable demand for its body parts. There are not enough living elephants to meet the demand for ivory. China supporting its carving industry and trade in ivory trinkets will lead to extinction ten the owners will be happy that the price of their blood ivory will rise.

  • Chella

    I subscribe to several African and Asian newspapers so I am well acquainted with the poaching crisis. By most experts’ estimation, poachers in Africa kill between 25,000 and 35,000 elephants annually – that’s about 104 a day. Elephants in the wild could be extinct within 10-12 years if the world doesn’t implement a complete ban on ivory. I disagree with the statement that there are encouraging signs that poaching may be stabilizing. That’s simply not true. It is shameful that the U.S. domestic markets have contributed greatly to the decline of this noble species and I applaud President Obama for his actions to help stop the slaughtering.
    If you ask me what I care more about, a handful of ivory collectors and musicians, or the survival of the African elephant, the choice is easy. I must say, I am very disappointed in National Geographic for this shoddy piece.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    The official numbers of the illegal killing of elephants for ivory were just released this morning by CITES/MIKE. At just over 20,000 they stand in stark contrast to the wildly exaggerated 35,000-50,000 numbers espoused by USFWS, Wildlife Conservation Society, Born Free USA and others.

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