Changing Planet

Q&A: Landmark Report Reveals Crucial Links in the Illegal Ivory Trade

While there are effectively unlimited numbers of poachers and consumers fueling the lucrative illegal ivory market, a new report suggests that nearly all the ivory shuttled from Africa to Asia—the biggest market—is confined to as few as 200 shipping containers a year.

This “transit or supply chain is the single greatest point of vulnerability in the illicit ivory system,” says Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free, an anti-poaching group based in Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, the group issued what it calls a “landmark” study on how illegal ivory is moved from Africa to Asia. Called “Out of Africa: Mapping the Global Trade in Illicit Elephant Ivory,” the study was conducted over three months by C4ADS, an NGO that seeks to shed light on global conflict and security issues through research and analysis.

Here, Roberts talks about ivory trafficking syndicates, the African ports that ship out most of the ivory, and why it makes most sense for law enforcement to target that link in the overall trade chain.

The report says that too much attention is paid to the beginning and end of the ivory supply chain—on poaching and demand—and that more should be paid to how ivory is transported.

The priority has been focused historically on that which is readily accessible. Images of elephant carcasses littering the African savanna show the poaching problem. Ivory for sale in China and other East Asian markets shows the demand problem. But the intervening supply is hidden from sight.

Born Free has seen a strong focus on poaching and also on demand, but the third aspect of the trade—the movement of ivory from the dead elephant to the consumers’ hands—is a vital focus and provides a further pressure point to stop the trade and save elephants.

Read the full story on our daily news page.

Christina Russo is a freelance journalist. For nearly 15 years, she has worked as a producer for a number of public radio programs, including NPR/WBUR’s "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. Christina also freelances for Yale Environment 360, where her written work focuses mainly on wildlife conservation issues. She is the co-producer, with WBUR, of the nationally syndicated documentary on American zoos, From Cages to Conservation. She has written numerous articles about animals, including a story about caring for donkeys in Ethiopia; a veterinarian saving horses in Sonoma County, CA; an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand; and the work of pre-eminent whale biologist Roger Payne for her hometown newspaper, The Gloucester Daily Times.
  • Mary Ann Zielinski

    Explain how it made sense to destroy a total of over 12 tons of ivory carvings and tusks! By destroying what was said to be a 25 year supply, those responsible for taking this action through their government agencies, did NOT, in my opinion, decrease the poaching/killing of elephants.

    Instead, by removing what was on the market, they created a scarcity of ivory products, which will only increase demand and price. (Economic theory of “supply and demand” determining price.) It will also lead to illegal/black-market sales.

    Instead of destroying/pulverizing the 12 tons of ivory, the government agencies involved, should have flooded the marketplace (mainly in U.S.), with the already available ivory. Allowing its sale, would have made it much LESS profitable for poachers to continue to kill to generate a new supply of ivory.

    Let African and Asian countries tighten controls of ivory export/import at THEIR borders. Impose harsher penalties for poachers and provide the enforcement manpower to capture poachers.

    No one has mentioned the collectors of finely carved ivories nor the auction houses and galleries that sell ivory objects. A fine collection of old ivory, for which a collector paid handsomely, is now worthless. Leaving it as an inheritance, gains the heirs nothing.

    The actions taken to stop the sale/purchase have infringed on the collector’s personal finances/investment. The auction houses have collectively lost millions of dollars in sales profits. (A direct effect on the economy overall and taxes paid to IRS on business profits.) I have not heard nor read of these consequences to citizens of the U.S. and our economy and government.

    At the very least, owners of ivory in our country, should have been “grandfathered in” to legally sell ivory in their collection or buy, to add to their collection. (If the borders were tightly secured, there would be no new ivory coming in nor incentive to poach.)

    Instead, collectors are being penalized by having to suffer the loss of thousands of dollars invested. (I wonder if there is a way to take the now valueless ivory collections and write them off on tax returns as a capital loss on investment?)

    Finally, why aren’t we putting the same effort into preserving from extinction the Bengal tigers? I believe there are LESS than 25,000 tigers. Yet, elephants that number somewhere in the 400,000 plus (as I recall reading) are ENDANGERED!!!

    Let’s undo the over zealous restrictions regarding elephants (which, by the way, I love) and put the focus on the other magnificent animals that are in greatest danger of extinction, the Bengal tigers.

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