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Opinion: Irrelevant, Illogical, and Illegal–24 Experts Respond to Arguments Supporting Legalization of the Ivory Trade

Compiled and edited by Katarzyna Nowak   PREAMBLE I present comments from 24 authorities who lay out the flaws in pro-trade thinking, as recently elocuted in Daniel Stiles’s essay “Can Elephants Survive a Continued Trade Ban?” written in response to Christina Russo’s article “Can Elephants Survive a Legal Ivory Trade? Debate Is Shifting Against It.”...

Compiled and edited by Katarzyna Nowak



I present comments from 24 authorities who lay out the flaws in pro-trade thinking, as recently elocuted in Daniel Stiles’s essay “Can Elephants Survive a Continued Trade Ban?” written in response to Christina Russo’s article “Can Elephants Survive a Legal Ivory Trade? Debate Is Shifting Against It.” These experts work in diverse fields, from anthropology, ecology, and conservation biology to law, journalism, politics, and economics. They voice their individual opinions, based on personal experience and research. As such, there is no suggestion that the commentators agree with each other, or are otherwise acting jointly.

The counter is organized into three sections: 1) Empirical evidence within a historical and sociopolitical context, 2) Obstacles to legal trade, and 3) Solutions. For this reason, comments from a single respondent may appear in multiple sections. There is also a prelude and finale.

We recognize that discourse with pro-trade campaigners will not be rebutted by sound bites, which is why each brief comment specifically addresses one of the key points on which Stiles hangs his assertions. Furthermore, I and others continue to speak out and challenge assumptions, since silence on our part assumes acquiescence to these proposals.

The critics of Stiles’s essay and anti-trade voices included here are not the only ones, and I point the reader to direct responses appearing beneath Stiles’s essay, as well as to the refutation by Grace Ge Gabriel, “Elephants are not Widgets,” which salutes the earlier “Elephants are not Diamonds,” written last year in response to the CITES Decision-Making Mechanism, and the original “Elephants are not Beetles,” written in 1989 in the lead-up to discussions that resulted in the listing of the African elephant on Appendix I of CITES and the initial, vital trade ban.

The posting of this list of objections to legalizing trade in elephant ivory coincides with what will most certainly be another historic event – the upcoming October 4 Global March for Elephants and Rhinos, in its second year. See you there.  – KN



The Inherent Contradiction – Iain Douglas-Hamilton, DPhil, OBE, Save the Elephants

Dan Stiles is a serious field researcher, so his article deserves serious review. However his essay “Can Elephants Survive a Continued Ivory Trade Ban?” is both confused and confusing—he leads with the idea that he will be guided by the evidential truth, then proceeds to advance a series of his own largely unsupported opinions—and the crux of his argument contains the seed of its own destruction. 

He strongly endorses campaigns to reduce the demand for ivory, telling us that demand for ivory is an evil which is driving the killing of elephants and that he would never like to own ivory himself, but in the same breath states that the only salvation for elephants is to institute a legal trade. There is an inherent contradiction between these two policies, which he has evidently not understood. Any trade at all promotes demand and results in killing elephants.  A domestic ivory trade ban is not only about stopping ivory commerce: it is also the strongest possible endorsement of demand reduction that a government can make. To make some ivory legal and the rest illegal is a failed policy that only confuses the public, and has had disastrous consequences.

This contradiction of endorsing two incompatible policies is the main flaw in Stiles’s argument, in my opinion, but there are many other fallacies in his presentation which should also be exposed.



Rewriting History to Promote Versace-Only-Ivory-Chic – Dr. Joyce Poole, Co-Director, ElephantVoices 

Dr. Stiles’s premise that Hong Kong and Japan were stockpiling ivory in the 1980s because a “ban was on the way” is a rewriting of history. CITES started the ivory quota system in 1985 because illegal killing of elephants was unsustainable, true. But even in 1987 none of the relevant institutional bodies was considering a closure of the trade. In late 1988, when Cynthia Moss and I began a public awareness campaign with the African Wildlife Foundation, we had to argue against a leading conservation organization whose opinion was still that the ivory trade was “good” for elephants.

It was only in 1989, when our “only elephants should wear ivory” campaign was in full swing, the Ivory Trade Review Group had compiled its report, Richard Leakey had persuaded President Moi to burn Kenya’s stockpile, and moratoria on trading in ivory fell into place, that a ban looked possible. I know this as I worked with the Tanzanian authorities to compile the Appendix I proposal and was among a small delegation that traveled to Japan and Hong Kong in July 1989 to discuss a possible closure of trade with government officials, ivory traders, and carvers and to try to get them on board. 

Furthermore, it was not the ban on international trade per se that drove down the illegal killing in the early 1990s; rather it was the ban, together with public awareness campaigns, that strove to stigmatize the buying, selling, and wearing of ivory.

Likewise, the increase in poaching began after populations were down-listed to Appendix II, discussions about stockpiles and trade were renewed, AND the storyline from the media had swung from one of slaughter to one of human-elephant conflict. The message to potential buyers had changed. It would seem that Stiles does not understand the drivers of fashion in light of his arguments for driving down demand for ivory through public awareness (targeting the “Walmart” mass market) while promoting a “Versace” type high-end trade. The masses aspire to what the wealthy purchase. It is not possible to promote trade with one hand and stigmatize it with the other.


Speculative Stockpiling – Francisco Aguayo, economist, independent consultant and PhD Fellow, Maastricht Economic Research and Training Institute on Technology and Innovation, Maastricht University, the Netherlands

Stiles’s essay about the drivers of ivory markets is inconsistent, unsupported, and misleading. The reasoning is the usual: Poaching is driven by scarcity, and any attempt to reduce supply only undermines regulation. The difference with other pro-trade proposals is the prominent role of speculative stockpiling. Although his article highlights important forces acting along the supply chain, Dr. Stiles’s claims on the drivers of ivory markets are simple conjectures lacking data about market conditions or knowledge about market dynamics.

To support the claim that stockpiling, and not demand, drives poaching one should show that ivory stocks accumulated beyond reasonable expectations on demand. Stiles not only assumes (wrongly) that stockpiling is always speculative and independent of demand but also fails to show any hard figures other than single time-points on stocks. The truth is that no one really knows the size of market demand or the dimensions of illegal stocks.

Lack of data is accompanied by lack of rigor: the effects of the 1999 one-off sale can only be reasonably measured by comparing against some point after the 1989 ban, not before, as Stiles does. The fact that the ivory carving industry in China, Taiwan, and Japan had lower activity levels in 2003 compared to those before 1989 only shows that the ban had an important dislocation effect on the industry (especially true in the case of Japan where—as Stiles himself showed in his 2003 survey with Martin—annual consumption dropped from 300 to 15 tons a year).

Finally, Stiles’s assessment of China’s recent market dynamics replicates many of the shortcomings of other superficial economic analyses of wildlife trade: the notions that markets are indicators of scarcity, that demand is stable, autonomous, and controllable through prices, and that markets are fundamentally homogeneous, static entities. Policy recommendations require more solid information and rigorous analysis, especially in times of crisis.


Extraction Is Theft – Prof. Andy Dobson, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., U.S.A.

The “empirical argument” that Stiles makes about Japan stockpiling ivory to await the economic emergence of China is flawed on multiple points. Would this argument also apply to the vast volume of minerals and timber that China is extracting from Africa? Would this problem have simply not arisen if Japan had stockpiled these commodities for an economic rainy day? I think not!

If there was no ivory trade, then the ivory carvers could retrain in any of the multiple industries that epitomize the Far-Eastern economic boom. If all else fails, they could carve stone or wood: The Inuit carvers of Nunavut work almost exclusively in granite, despite access to walrus tusks and caribou antlers. Their work is ultimately more valuable and aesthetically pleasing, as it reflects their lifestyle and an inherent desire to see it preserved.

An ivory carving can be viewed as little more than a gaudy trinket from an illegally dead elephant stolen from another continent and another culture. I see very little to value aesthetically or morally in artworks created from illegally poached sentient animals.

A new wave of contemporary Chinese artists are currently exhibiting their work at the U.K.’s largest ever exhibition of contemporary art from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong; they’re using artistic media other than ivory, such as brass, wood, porcelain, paint, video, flags, paper, and street lights, according to Ian Youngs, Arts reporter for BBC news. Ultimately, innovative artists in China do not need ivory to create art. Ethical buyers and dealers should have no need to tarnish their reputations by dealing in blood ivory.


One-off Sales Did Not Stem Demand for Illegal Ivory – Dan Bucknell and Charlie Mayhew, Tusk Trust

The reasons that we’re still having this debate are threefold. First, there is great expertise and years of experience on both sides of the argument, which has become further clouded by emotions and politics. Second, there are so many variables associated with the trade in ivory— whether legal or illegal—that it has become too difficult to disentangle causation from correlation. Third, despite numerous attempts to identify an analogous market to back up the arguments on either side (including narcotics, minerals, timber, numerous other wildlife products, etc.), the variables are again too great for one to model the outcome of any decisions with any certainty. The only thing we can say with any certainty is that if there is no demand for ivory at all, there will be no market, and no illegal killing of elephants.

There have been many drivers behind the surge in ivory poaching, and it’s again difficult to pinpoint any single key driver. As well as those that Dan Stiles has mentioned, the economic growth and burgeoning middle-class with disposable incomes in China and the increased business links between China and African elephant range states are also key factors. Proponents of the pro-trade argument have gone to great lengths in their efforts to disprove a link between the 2008 one-off ivory sale and the increase in the illegal ivory trade, and vice versa. Other factors are involved, but whatever the case, the one-off sale certainly did nothing to stem the demand for illegal ivory, and it created confusion in the consumer market as to whether ivory was legal or illegal, allowing organized crime to take full advantage. 


More of the Same Again? It’s Time to Stop Putting a Price Tag on Ivory and Turn the Tide Against Wildlife Crime – Shruti Suresh, Wildlife Campaigner and Lawyer, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)

Any parallel legal trade in the parts and products of vulnerable species that continue to be threatened by trade, such as elephants, rhinos, and tigers, poses a serious threat to the survival of these species in the wild.

Stiles argues that “more of the same” would not be successful in reducing poaching—i.e., a ban on trade in ivory has been tried and has not worked. This is based on an invalid assumption that there has been a perpetual ivory ban that has been effectively implemented, when in fact there is a thriving legal domestic market for ivory in China which also happens to be the primary destination country for illegal ivory.

Stiles’s solution of solving the elephant poaching crisis by allowing China and Japan to purchase approximately 65 tons of legal raw ivory annually is naïve and ignores the overwhelming evidence obtained during recent years, which has confirmed the failure of a legal trade in ivory to curb the illicit trade.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has more than 30 years of experience in investigating and exposing the international illicit trade in ivory. EIA undercover investigators have encountered a range of players across the ivory trade chain—from poachers and smugglers in Africa to ivory dealers and retailers in China. These undercover investigations have yielded rich insights into the driving factors of the trade and the perceptions of criminals involved in it.

For example, EIA investigations have confirmed that the legal sale of stockpiled ivory to China and Japan in 2008 failed to either reduce the price of ivory or curb the illicit ivory trade in China. Instead we found that the retail price of legal ivory represented a massive mark-up and that the control system to regulate legal ivory was a failure to such an extent that the perception of both legal and illegal traders was that up to 90 percent of the ivory available on the market came from illegal sources.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the internationally renowned expert in fighting drug trafficking and international crime, has advised that an unequivocal ban on trade in ivory would have a positive impact in combating the illicit trade in ivory: “The trade in illicit ivory is only lucrative because there is a parallel licit supply, and ivory can be sold and used openly. Ivory would lose much of its marketability if buying it were unequivocally an illegal act, or if ownership of these status goods had to be concealed.”

The CITES Secretariat has reported that, “Because China allows internal ivory trade under a control system that was previously vetted through a CITES process, the ongoing flow of large volumes of illegal ivory to China suggests that such ivory may be moving into legal ivory trade channels.” There is no doubt that the legal ivory trade has provided an avenue for laundering of illegal ivory and has in this manner certainly exacerbated the illegal trade.

Stiles also ignores the implications of the serious level of criminality and the role of organized criminal networks in the ivory trade and instead wrongly assumes that wildlife laws and other related laws are being effectively enforced to implement the ivory trade ban.

In the 1980s, EIA documented the role of the Poon family, a sophisticated and organized transnational criminal network engaged in trafficking ivory from Africa via the Middle East to East Asia. More than a decade later, EIA’s analysis of individuals and companies implicated in the world’s largest ivory seizure, in Singapore in 2002, revealed that members of the Poon network were still involved in the illegal ivory trade.

To this day, none of the key players involved in the 2002 seizure have been prosecuted. There is thus a widespread lack of effective criminal justice response against ivory trafficking, and we need to be focusing on fixing these underlying problems instead of contemplating a parallel legal trade system that would complicate enforcement even further.

Stiles suggests that allowing China and Japan to purchase legal ivory would greatly reduce the profitability of the trade and demand for ivory. With any legal trade, however, comes the rational desire to maximize profit and increase demand. This inevitably leads to associated marketing practices to expand demand and also the market for these products. For example, recent EIA investigations into a parallel legal trade in skins of captive tigers in China found the taxidermy industry to be actively promoting the use of tiger skin rugs as luxury home décor. Needless to say, this parallel legal trade has not stopped the poaching of wild tigers and instead presents a mechanism for laundering wild tiger skins.

“Legalize it” may be a workable mantra for your run-of the-mill consumer products, but it is certainly not feasible for products sourced from finite and fast-depleting vulnerable wildlife.

We’ve tried a commercial legal trade in ivory, and it was a colossal failure. Let’s not try more of the same again. Now is the time to stop putting a price tag on ivory and start valuing it more on elephants in the wild.


Quality of What You Get Out Depends on What You Put in – Susie Watts, Independent wildlife consultant

Careless errors over the start date of calls for a ban on African elephant ivory trade, a lack of understanding of why commodities like ivory and rhino horn are stockpiled, no consideration of the difference between information gathered undercover and that given to tourists, coupled with wild assumptions about how “legal” ivory prices could be kept low in China, provide a very shaky foundation for the construction of Dr. Stiles’s argument. As with any analysis, the quality of what you get out depends on the quality of what you put in.


Time Lags Are Real – Dr. Shermin de Silva, Fellow, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study) and President and founder, Trunks & Leaves, U.S.A.

Applying economic paradigms to biological systems with little understanding of biological data is as dangerous as doing the reverse. Stiles asserts that the initial ban on ivory not only failed to curtail demand but actually increased it in parts of Asia, such as Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, where elephant populations supposedly decreased by two-thirds in the decade following the ban, implying a causal link.

It’s as difficult to argue that the ban resulted in the decline of elephants in Asia as it is to demonstrate that two one-off sales caused the poaching epidemic. First, Asian elephants were largely wiped out in their native ranges owing to profligate ivory hunting and active eradication programs during the colonial era, then, more recently, by habitat loss. Hence they were already largely in decline in many parts of the world. Small, fragmented populations can decline at an accelerated pace once they are below a critical threshold, and it’s possible these populations were already past the brink.

It’s unclear how much of the decline occurred within the last two decades, given that proper population estimates for most countries did not, and still do not, exist. But it’s indeed possible that the ban on ivory did not eliminate demand overnight, that hunters turned to the remote, hidden, and poorly managed Asian populations when the highly visible African populations were protected with greater effort. African forest elephants have been similarly hard hit. Human and ecological systems respond with time lags.

If at all, this example only illustrates the difficulty of protecting cryptic species irrespective of the legal status of the ivory trade. Similarly, the response to the one-off sales may not have been immediate but propagated with time-lags, making arguments based on correlations (or lack thereof) from two data points somewhat of a speculative exercise, irrespective of the direction of the claims.


Congolese Politics Are One of the Drivers of Poaching – Dr. John Hart, Directeur Scientifique et Technique, Fondation Lukuru, Projet Tshuapa-Lomami-Lualaba (TL2), Kinshasa, République Démocratique du Congo

One fact that keeps coming back to me is that long before the current upsurge in illegal ivory trafficking across the rest of the continent, colossal amounts of ivory (even by today’s standards) were leaving DRC. This was more than a decade ago, starting after 2002, but especially 2004-05. There were still a lot of elephants to be killed then.  

I believe Congolese ivory was the first major movement of poached ivory following the 1989 ban, and it opened the gates and led the way to an expansion of illegal killing now surging through East Africa (a lot of Congolese ivory went out through Ugandan businessmen, and there was even an ivory futures market). 

Where was the demand? China, Japan. Stiles’s article suggests Asia. But the easy movement of all that ivory (no one was arrested despite the documentation of illegal operatives) set the stage for the creation of exporting rackets in Mombasa and elsewhere over the next decade that remain to plague us today. They all got their start on the easy take and low arrest rates following the looting of Congo.

All of this happened with barely a blip on the international radar.


Rhino Horn and Ivory Trade—Already a Done Deal in South Africa? – Jabu Linden, Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, Limpopo, South Africa, and Bibi Linden, Zoology, University of Venda, Limpopo, South Africa

Stiles’s economic argument for the ivory trade is very worrying, given the lack of capacity to enforce regulation by the countries involved. Living in South Africa, we are witnessing a similar approach developing under the Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, regarding rhino horn trade. Our ministry is clearly “pro-use” in its developing policies, but has the consultation really been open enough?

While we are not capable of protecting rhinos, with poaching steadily increasing and more than 630 killed so far this year, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) moves vigorously in the pro-rhino-horn trade direction, receiving advice from a ministerial panel of experts (labeled as “secretive” by the press and who appear to be uniformly pro trade), selling the economic argument that engaging the markets will mitigate the catastrophe.

Also currently, the DEA process to revise the 2008 Elephant Norms and Standards (N&S), citing inability or lack of a mandate to apply the regulations, is thought-provoking. The concept note, circulated as part of the stakeholder engagement process (comprising two workshops), is quite comprehensive in its listing of problems, and there are obviously a lot of grey areas in elephant management that the N&S do not satisfactorily address. A revision is clearly needed. Issues raised run from welfare of captive animals (noting that welfare is not DEA’s responsibility and following the recent, well-publicized removal of a few elephant calves from the wild) to the time-consuming nature of developing management plans for keeping elephants either in private reserves or communal land or for “eco-tourism activities.”

Near the middle of the document, under “Control of wild elephant population sizes and distribution,” “not cull” is listed as an issue when it comes to population management. In a related DEA document entitled “Key challenges regarding the implementation and enforcement of the Elephant Norms and Standards in South Africa,” further questions are asked: “The Ecological Carrying Capacity is too rigid. Should the Economical Carrying Capacity not rather be used for the purpose of the N&S?”

The hotly contested issue of growing elephant populations and culling as a management tool asks the question: Are we being prepared for “pro-use” in line with our government lobbying hard for reopening the international ivory and rhino horn trades in 2016?

Is our common ecological crisis, our loss of wild lands really to be solved by the monetary system that has pushed us to this brink? Is that what Daniel Stiles means when he says “we need to face reality”? Even if we in South Africa retain the capacity to manage (or indeed farm!) our fragmented rhino and elephant populations—which is questionable given recent developments—what is the impact of our stance on the survival of these species on the rest of our continent?

(The views of the authors do not represent those of the organizations they are affiliated with).


Let’s Keep the “Well-Meaning” Disparagement Out of the Debate – Ian Michler, environmental journalist for the Conservation Action Trust; Director, Eden to Addo   

There will no doubt be many insightful and highly experienced conservationists, journalists, and economists refuting the recent pro-trade assertions of Daniel Stiles. I too find his approach misguided and loaded with far too many vagaries to be acceptable. However, in this response I want rather to focus on a small point—that of approach and language use, as these are no less significant in the big picture.

Stiles also falls foul of the disparaging attitude that highlights the same clumsy thinking that continues to swirl within staunch “sustainable–use” circles. Having an anti-trade stance on wildlife issues, or opposing trophy hunting for that matter, is no more or less of a “campaign” than his own stance, and I can only assume that he believes and hopes his approach to be well-meaning?

If it is, then lay off the injudicious use of language that attempts to confer some greater claim of legitimacy on arguments put forward by the pro-use lobby. It’s a complete misconception that Africa speaks with a pro-use voice and that those who oppose are merely “well-meaning campaigns.” There is already a significant constituency spread across the continent that finds many of our current policies based on the use paradigm more akin to “sustainable abuse.” Oh, and we also care a lot about the elephants.     



Market manipulation is a central issue – Dr. Peter J. Li, Associate Professor of East Asian Politics, University of Houston-Downtown and China Policy Specialist, Humane Society International

Daniel Stiles has underestimated the market manipulation role of the Chinese authorities. As long as the state controls the distribution of the legally imported raw ivory, favoring some businesses and at the expense of others, the “discriminated” ivory factory owners would have only one choice, i.e., to seek illegal ivory as a way to break or resist the unfair and unequal distribution system. Quantity of supply does not end illegal ivory purchase if the supply is distributed unequally or discriminately. It’s important to remember that the rising demand for ivory in China is caused not by supply uncertainty but by distribution inequality (state owned enterprises or other privileged private enterprises favored over others). And the rise of the ivory carving business is not a result of concern over supply uncertainty but reform of the state-owned enterprises, which led to the rise of private ivory carving businesses.


Walmart Model Prevails – Dr. Pete Coppolillo, Executive Director, Working Dogs for Conservation

Stiles’s argument is built around a few idiosyncrasies of “the” ivory market, which he thinks the conservationists got wrong. He may be correct, but getting these details right won’t make the ivory trade sustainable. Furthermore, his hope for “a shift toward the Versace model” (from the “WalMart Model”) is, in a word, fanciful. Not even in the United States do we have the capacity to manage such a transition. How could we possibly expect to orchestrate this kind of control across numerous developing countries in Africa and Asia—and to do it in time to save elephants—when we haven’t accomplished it in the United States? 


The Real World Is Not a Simple Supply and Demand Utopia  Dr. Keith Lindsay, Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Kenya

The analysis offered by Daniel Stiles and other trade proponents may be appealing, on its surface, because of its apparent simplicity. In their view, free trading by rational consumers in open markets for a readily available commodity will automatically find a satisfactory, stable equilibrium where everybody wins—people wanting ivory trinkets, carvers and middlemen supplying them, African governments desiring income from ivory sales for national treasuries or conservation, elephants themselves. In this ideal world where the market solves all problems on its own, what could be better?

This kind of thinking is typical of one particular school of economics, the so-called “neo-classical,” but while it is still popular nowadays, especially with fiscal conservatives and libertarians, there are many other approaches that more broad-minded economists (see Francisco Aguayo above) use to try to understand the way life works. In the real world, despite what neo-classical disciples would like us to believe, markets are not (and never have been) free but are often highly regulated and manipulated by governments, corporations, and middlemen traders acting in their own interests or for those they represent (e.g. citizens, investors); consumers are not entirely rational or omnisciently well-informed; production/productivity of commodities is at least as important as demand and price. Criminals, who are just middlemen operating outside of legal systems, understand these realities all too well.

Ivory is produced in complex ecosystems by living elephants growing and reproducing at slow rates; this low productivity cannot be boosted to meet even a modest rise in demand, making elephants particularly poised on the edge of over-exploitation. Treated as a product, ivory is not an isolated commodity but is only one of a great many wild animal and plant products that are exploited and traded on a vast scale, mainly in criminal networks with no monitoring of quantities or supply chains. Such networks and syndicates can easily undercut government efforts at protection and management of elephants and their ivory, because their overheads are much lower, and they have no qualms about sourcing their commodity directly from local criminals, corrupt officials, or even militias and terrorists. Stockpiling, price inflation or deflation, and unsustainable off-take may all occur without any way of outsiders knowing. Consumers of ivory are largely unaware that ivory must come from dead elephants, or that many populations are threatened with elimination by their demand.

Despite what Stiles claims, factors affecting demand for ivory have been studied. In an econometric analysis of Japanese demand prior to the 1989 ban, E.J. Milner-Gulland showed that rising average income, and thus ability to pay, was the key factor. This conclusion offers a compelling parallel with the rising incomes and demand in China today. In addition, the attitudes of both middlemen and consumers are very likely to be affected by signals of possible changes in the supply of ivory: the possibility of one-off stockpile sales or of the eventual opening of a legal market in 25 years’ time are both positive signals to traders and consumers that ivory is still (at least potentially) for sale, as are public destructions of ivory that it is not. Specific surges or drops in demand may therefore be difficult to attribute directly to the events themselves because they may have complicated effects on human perceptions. It is clear, however, that positive signals will support interest in ivory, while negative signals and well-targeted campaigns will cause it to drop. Urgent efforts in the latter approach, to reduce and eventually end demand for ivory, are the only sure means for saving elephants from extinction.


Natural Mortality and Problem Animal Control Cannot Sustain a Trade – Professor Phyllis Lee, Stirling University, Scotland and Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Kenya

Stiles makes assumptions about sustaining a 50-60 ton international trade in ivory based on natural mortality, the one-off and individual shooting of so-called problem animals, and culls that are few and far between for ethical and ecological reasons. Our data from Amboseli, a well-protected site in southern Kenya, can provide a baseline for estimates of natural mortality, and these data do not support Stiles’s claim for a sustainable trade based on naturally dying elephants.

The average losses owing to natural mortality are only 3.5 percent in a population of ~1000 individuals, so the rate of acquisition of tusks will be incredibly slow. Again, on average in any year, most (53 percent) natural deaths are among calves under two, who lack tusks. Animals prior to reproductive age, also with small tusks, typically make up another 16 percent of deaths. In total, the proportion of non-“harvestable” individuals is more than two-thirds of natural deaths. Individuals in the age classes likely to produce tusks for trade (>30 years of age) represent just over 10 percent of natural deaths. And since elephants clearly do not frequent elephant graveyards when they are ill or injured, finding this small number of naturally occurring tusks in vast roadless areas, for example the Okavango of Botswana or the forested areas of southern Tanzania (where counts of elephants have high error margins), would be logistically challenging and extremely costly (all carcasses detected and then reached by “harvesters”). These figures suggest that the returns on natural or found “ivory” would be unlikely to generate sufficient returns (60-200 tons) to control the international trade in the costly regulated and policed fashion suggested by the proponents of trade. 


Narrow View of Supply and Demand Estimates – Dr. Kathleen Gobush, Wildlife Biologist

The level of Asian demand for ivory is often set at whatever volume best fits the argument attempting to be made, when in reality it is not known. The model of annual ivory accumulation to which Stiles refers in fact estimated annual ivory accumulation to be as low as 9.5 tons per annum across Africa, depending on the assumptions and population numbers applied, the latter of which have certainly declined in recent years. The found or pick up rate of tusks is one critical parameter that would need careful ground-truthing to accurately predict accumulation, not to mention an assurance that stock leakage or theft issues would not be a problem. From quotas to permits to stock storage to government-issued ivory identification cards, the global community has not demonstrated it can “utilize” elephants without significantly harming them. How many more awkward attempts can the species endure? How many more must it endure?


Future Elephant Declines Inevitable Given Habitat Loss, Human Population Growth and Human-Elephant Conflict – Dr. Rene Beyers, Biodiversity Research Centre, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C.

Although Dr. Stiles’s reasoning seems plausible at first sight, his main assumption that legal ivory can be provided in sufficient quantities and in a timely manner to satisfy demand is problematic. Production of ivory is likely to decrease in the future while demand will stay high, or go up, at least under the current circumstances. Regardless of illegal killing, it is probable that elephant populations will decline in most of Africa (southern Africa may be an exception to this, although see above comments by the Lindens about rhinos) because of habitat loss, rapidly increasing human populations in elephant range countries, and increasing human-elephant conflicts. Civil strife may further push elephants toward local extinctions in certain countries, as was the case in many parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Furthermore, elephant reproduction rates are too low to sustain a market of high demand.

On the other hand, it is unlikely that demand would decrease if an ivory market persists. On the contrary, in China, which is now the biggest market, increasing purchasing power means that more people will be able to buy ivory. It is a dangerous assumption that (legal) ivory production will keep up with rising demand. This will lead to increased ivory prices and stimulate the illegal circuit. 

Sustaining a market of ivory justifies the use of it as a non-essential luxury, art, or investment item and will make it very difficult to fundamentally change consumer attitudes. We should not assume that attitudes in Asia will not change over time. They did for many animal products (e.g. fur) in Europe in the past, and in general, habits and culture in Asia are changing fast. People are often not aware of the dire consequences of their consumption of ivory for both animals and people.

At most, putting more legal ivory to the market might bring a temporary relief through its impact on price, but in the long term it is not a solution, and it may worsen the problem.

I also doubt that a complete leak-proof system of legal ivory trade can be established. Corruption is rife in many ivory-producing countries, and there is no guarantee that this will improve in the future. Many countries in Africa, for example in central Africa, also have little capacity to monitor a controlled trade.

On the customer side, it may be difficult to keep strict control on the proposed mechanism of sales. The Chinese government stockpiled ivory to drive up prices with the last one-off sale. Who says that this would not happen in the future, especially if more countries would be able to sell?


Supply is not unlimited – Dr. Shermin de Silva, Fellow, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study) and President and founder, Trunks & Leaves

The dominant pro-trade position rests on the assertion that ivory bans create scarcity and drive up price, fueling demand by speculators. It follows from this law of supply and demand that the extinction of a species would be perversely desirable since commodities derived from it would then be indefinitely valuable; the serious speculators not only know this quite well but are probably betting on it.

Yet increased prices are also theoretically meant to reduce demand in order to match supply, and it is implicitly expected that supply can be adjusted accordingly in an iterative process. This might hold for manufactured or cultivated products such as alcohol or tobacco, where the supply is under human control. This is not the case with elephants, fish, or any other over-harvested wild species. The supply itself is fundamentally not in our control, only artificial regulation of harvested supply. Neither the demand nor the supply is behaving as classical theory would predict. That is why there can be no margin for error, especially given that we are operating within corrupt systems where regulating markets is near impossible. This pre-existing reality is an obstacle to implementing the ideal world scenario Stiles outlines.

Even if the three-part plan were somehow achieved with any degree of success, it is far from guaranteed that poaching levels would drop to a negligible “residual” level. Carved ivory prices would remain high, they would still be perceived as investments, there would still be some demand (perhaps even increased demand, since those who would not purchase illegal ivory may choose to purchase ivory perceived as legal), levels of fraud would rise, and very likely poaching would continue or escalate.

Under a total ban, the price for any ivory object would be zero. This is because an item cannot be viewed as a symbol of status or a worthy investment if it is illegal to be caught selling it. The burden of distinguishing legal from illegal products is removed from governments as much as consumers. One reason demand persists is that there continues to be this debate offering hope of limited trade. There is less room for corruption or speculation if the product cannot openly be traded in any form.


Corruption and Porous Borders – Dan Bucknell and Charlie Mayhew, Tusk Trust

Dan Stiles sets out three essential outcomes—or criteria—for there to be a legal ivory trade system in place. It would be extremely difficult to meet these criteria within the time frame required, and they’re based on too many assumptions about the scale of demand—which can’t be modeled with any certainty—and whether that could be supplied legally.

Even if a tightly regulated market could be established—which is highly unlikely given the levels of corruption in Africa and Asia and the porous nature of Africa’s borders—there would also be the added concern that control of “problem” animals could potentially be abused in order to increase supply.


Potential for Legal Ivory Supply Not Robust – Dr. John Hart, Directeur Scientifique et Technique, Fondation Lukuru, Projet Tshuapa-Lomami-Lualaba (TL2), Kinshasa, République Démocratique du Congo

I question the potential for elephant populations to supply 50-60 tons (or more?) of legal ivory annually (mortality and culls). I see elephant range shrinking and elephant populations dropping very fast. Major elephant populations are being depleted in a matter of a few years (for example, the latest survey from Selous, in Tanzania, has the landscape holding just 13,000 elephants). I am not so sure the potential for “legal” ivory supply will remain robust. Ultimately (and maybe even soon) human-elephant conflict will be the dominant determinant of elephant killing and elephant range….and guess who is winning!

In any case, very little of this legal tonnage (if legal trade is to happen) can now come from DR Congo. We are down, by best guess, to 7,500 elephants total, at most, for the country and still dropping. Many other countries in central and East Africa will follow Congo in watching their elephant populations collapse in a twinkling of the eye. The ivory might not be there for long.


Risks to Asian Elephants – Prof. Vincent Nijman, Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, U.K.

While the world focuses on elephant poaching in Africa, horrible though it is, in the debate the fate of the Asian elephant is ignored (it is not mentioned once by Stiles). We may not see photographs of Asian elephants lying slaughtered in the open fields, but of course they do suffer from poaching to supply demand for ivory just as their African brethren.

My worry is that opening up the ivory market by allowing (Asian) countries to trade in African elephant ivory will have a very negative effect on Asian elephants. And given that Asian elephants are more rare and are in an even more precarious situation than African elephants, there is less room for error. The Asian elephants happen to live in some of the most corrupt countries in the world, and when African elephant ivory is allowed to be traded throughout Asia, I can easily see a parallel flow emerging of Asian elephant ivory into the now legal ivory trade. I cannot see a way how this can be stopped once the market opens up. Even if the wholesale price of ivory drops significantly following legal sales, as predicted by Stiles, I reckon still enough money can be made from the sale of ivory to make poaching of Asian elephants worthwhile, especially when it becomes easier and less risky to trade Asian elephant ivory.


No Examples of Sustainable Trade for Large Species – Prof. Andy Dobson, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., U.S.A.

The basic fact that Stiles and other proponents of trade in ivory always fail to acknowledge is that the ivory trade has always been deeply corrupt, and there are no examples of sustainable use of wildlife for any species larger than a cow. The economic reasons for this are simple: The population growth rate of anything larger than a cow is always less than the growth rate of the money supply (interest rate at the bank). If you want your finances to grow at a maximum rate, then there is no point conserving big animals. You will make a larger profit if you kill everything you can, sell the ivory, put the money in the bank, and live off the interest. This is exactly what the whaling industry did, essentially what fisheries do, and this underlies the corruption of ivory and undermines the argument that there should be a trade in ivory to save elephants.


Photo credit: ElephantVoices
Photo credit: ElephantVoices



Continuing to Strengthen Campaigns, Enforcement, and Judicial Systems – Dan Bucknell and Charlie Mayhew, Tusk Trust

This debate is set to continue, and yet all those involved want to see elephant populations thrive. With that in mind, we need to focus on what else we can agree on and take it from there:

1)    That awareness campaigns are required to reduce demand for ivory, whether illegal or legal.

2)    That there must be much greater penalties imposed, and better enforcement of already existing laws, to prevent elephant poaching and the illegal trade in ivory.

Until significant progress has been made in these two areas, the ongoing debate is largely irrelevant.

Tusk Trust is firmly against the re-opening of any legal trade in ivory, as there are too many uncertainties and the risks to elephant populations are far too great.


Inter-Generational Legislation – Prof. Andy Dobson, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., U.S.A.

The resource extraction industries have always employed scribes to mislead the public about the consequences of their activities. As in the case of global climate change, the legal profession needs to develop inter-generational legislation that allows the estates and descendants of exploitative industries and their day-rate hacks to retrospectively pay significant levels of recompense for the environmental damage they cause.


Don’t Allow Naysayers to Thwart Demand Reduction Efforts – Peter Knights, WildAID

I do agree with Dr. Stiles that post-1989 the opportunity to end ivory trade was missed, but the thing that then prevented CITES closing the loopholes of stockpiles and legal sales of ivory through which poached ivory flows is exactly what he’s doing now: keeping alive the prospect of reopening a “regulated trade,” as he does here.

Just as with climate change, whatever the evidence, it only takes one or two naysayers to give political cover to avoid the needed action. His economic analysis and misuse of the word “demand” is particularly frustrating. From a demand reduction point of view, his approach is disastrous, sending the wrong message to consumers (“it’s okay to buy ivory”) who don’t know how to tell legal from illegal ivory. You can’t say, ‘Don’t buy,’ on one hand and ‘Go ahead, buy it,’ on the other, without confusing people—but that’s what he proposes.


Demand Reduction Is Working and Need Not Take Decades – Patricia Raxter, International Studies, Old Dominion University, V.A., U.S.A.

Pro-traders assert that the only way to safeguard wild elephants is to satisfy market demand through legal ivory sales. This is based on the faulty assumption that demand reduction programs are not effective in the short term. However strong evidence illustrates that demand reduction programs can play a fundamental role in shifting attitudes of populations, business leaders, and governments in a relatively short period.

The Wild Aid Shark Fin campaign is a good example of how quickly consumer behavior can change. In four short years, Wild Aid was able to raise public awareness on shark finning to the point that 99 percent of Chinese surveyed supported a total ban on shark imports. Online retailers banned sales of shark fin, and in 2012 the Chinese government and Hong Kong agreed to stop serving shark fin soup at official banquets. By 2014, sales had dropped between 50 and 70 percent, significantly decreasing the impact of a thousand-year-old tradition.

Similar impacts are possible in the ivory trade. Wild Aid reaches a billion Chinese a week with their ivory demand reduction message, “When the buying stops, the killing can, too.” The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) “Mom, I got teeth” campaign, which depicts a baby elephant telling his mother about his tusks, was seen by 75 percent of urban Chinese. The ad was also incorporated into official college entrance exams in Zhejiang, reaching a key audience: youth.

Strong evidence suggests that Chinese attitudes about ivory are quickly shifting as a result of these and other campaigns. After seeing these types of messages, 68 percent of respondents said they would never buy ivory again. In another survey 94 percent of respondents indicated support for a ban on ivory sales to save elephants. Online news articles on the ivory trade, and China’s role, have gone viral in China, reaching millions. Top Chinese business leaders have publicly pledged to never purchase, own, or gift ivory. It took less than six months for local NGOs to successfully lobby Hong Kong leaders to burn the city’s 30-ton ivory stockpile and to convince the city’s three largest ivory retailers to stop selling ivory.

Importantly, these shifts are part of a greater trend toward environmental awareness in China. After witnessing the environmental impacts of development, about 64 percent of Chinese identify themselves as environmentalists, a rate double that of the U.S. or Europe. More than 5,300 local environmental NGOs exist. Of the country’s 180,000 protests each year, the majority are related to environmental issues. And most hopeful of all, environmental education is now mandated for China’s 200 million school-age children.

And the Chinese government, while it could and should do more, is taking real action. In 2012, China banned auctions of parts and products made from endangered wildlife, including elephants. This year, China made it illegal to knowingly purchase or consume poached wildlife. In January, the government burned six tons of illegal ivory. Beijing has stepped up aid to African governments battling poachers and increased efforts to educate Chinese migrant workers in Africa. It has increased enforcement efforts, making more arrests in China while also participating in successful international operations to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade.

Considering that 80 percent of the world’s wildlife crime is trafficked to or through China, demand reduction is about more than “just” elephants and other iconic species. In addition to the well-known threats to tigers, rhinos, and lions, pangolins, turtles, abalone, migratory birds, and countless other animals and plants are subject to the growing Chinese appetite for wildlife. Transnational criminal syndicates can quickly spot trends in consumption, corner the market in a wildlife product, and decimate species.

Coordinated demand reduction strategies, aggressively marketed, with locally relevant messaging and the support of governments and business, can work to make an immediate difference in the purchasing habits of consumers and can relieve pressure on species on the brink of extinction.


Photographic Tourism Continues to Grow – Dr. Katarzyna Nowak, Anthropology, Durham University, UK; Zoology & Entomology, University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, RSA; contributor, Conservation Action Trust; Scientific Advisor, Southern Tanzania Elephant Project, Tanzania

Tourism is a booming industry, and although it’s not free of controversy or adverse effects, why isn’t it considered a form of trade deserving of investment? Investment in the form of wild species conservation, equitable sharing of tourism revenue in a way that helps empower local communities, and support of human-elephant conflict mitigation efforts and projects—the core focus of many NGOs and the focus of more than a quarter of projects funded by the USFWS in recent years—a more long-term “problem animal” management strategy than shoot-to-kill, stockpile parts, and trade. Pro-traders urge us to instead invest in niche markets in order to save the same species that attract millions of dollars every year with opportunities for photographic tourism, a lower-risk and far larger market by comparison.

Elephants in Amboseli, Kenya, generate more tourism dollars every year than would be generated by a one-off sale of all their ivory. Numbers of tourists to Africa from China and the Far East are increasing, all of which emphasizes that the tourism sector is not only sustainable but also a growing source of economic revenue for Africa that is much less susceptible to corruption and over-exploitation.

In retrospect, the same pro-traders who promoted one-off sales now say they were poorly designed and facilitated the formation of cartels. How would China manage a more regular supply differently, and where would this supply be sourced? From the same diminished stockpiles that have been leaking onto its black market for years, and from declining elephant populations with hardly any natural mortality? How realistic is it to expect demand countries to acknowledge that the supply is finite? When will the pro-trade lobby acknowledge that “price” manipulation isn’t the golden ticket?

The two sides of the ivory and broader wildlife trade debate could stop reprocessing their positions and opt for a new, more ethical way forward rooted in our shared hominin history and experience seeing hundreds of species decline from our over-exploitation and anthropocentrism. We increasingly know the limits of our ecological interventions and technical ability to manipulate the natural world; it is beyond time to apply the precautionary principle to trade in elephants and ivory.



The “Great Work” of Africa Is its Grand Primordial Landscapes and Majestic Herds That Remain – Dr. Rutledge S. Boyes, National Geographic Emerging Explorer / TED Fellow / INK Fellow; Research Associate at Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology; Scientific Director & Trustee, Wild Bird Trust

The legalization of the ivory trade is beyond justification. Pro-trade arguments are rooted in the misguided application of economic theory to marketplaces we don’t understand and are too dynamic to control. In Africa there is growing support for legalization owing to the dire situation of what I call desperate, under-resourced “balance sheet conservationists.”

Pro-trade lobbyists use justifications like the protection of cultural heritage, driving down raw ivory prices to suppress poaching and market speculation, and supplying market demand with ivory from stockpiles, culled elephants, natural death, and problem animals. Clean and simple…Let me get this right: Ivory traders buy the ivory for less from government and charge the consumer the same amount to control market demand? Maybe I’m not getting this right? Ok. Ivory traders buy it for less and sell it for less, but the consumer market does not react? Are some people born wanting ivory products, and others will never want them? How do we know how many people will want legal ivory products in five years or even next year?

Surely to control consumer demand, we need to make ivory unattainably expensive? Or do ivory traders already restrict growth in demand because carved products are already so expensive? So, let me get this right: Ivory traders are assured of making more money from a guaranteed legal supply. How do we know that killing or culling up to 15,000 elephants every year to supply 50-65 tons of legal raw ivory to China, Japan, and Southeast Asia will satisfy demand? Suddenly human-wildlife conflict becomes a profitable business.

Balance sheet conservationists are the men and women at the coal face of the conservation of protected areas across Africa. They are forever looking for the necessary funds to protect our last wild landscapes from poaching, land invasion, rebels, corruption, pollution, tourism impacts, fire, logging, and habitat degradation. They work tirelessly at grant applications and plead with local governments for subsidies and budget increases.

Selling ivory and rhino horn stockpiles worth tens of millions of dollars becomes very tempting, making justifications for legalization more and more attractive. This money could fund anti-poaching units, fences, drones, motion sensors, community-based conservation projects, elephant and rhino sanctuaries, awareness campaigns, films… everything we dreamed we would need to stop this killing. As the clock ticks, more and more elephants are shot dead. Panic.

This, however, is like catching swordfish to fund swordfish conservation, or selling Cape parrots to save Cape parrots. Society and government need to support these hard-working conservationists, allowing them to focus on their life’s work—creating beautiful, balanced, and secure protected areas. Let’s aim rather at getting millions of Chinese to travel to Africa to enjoy our unrivaled natural heritage to pay for conservation and fill those empty balance sheets.

The “Great Work” of Africa, of the peoples of Africa, is the grand primordial landscapes that remain—places like the Serengeti, Okavango, and Congo. Our majestic elephant herds, vast migrations, prides of lion, gentle gorillas, and screaming chimpanzees are at the heart of it. This is what makes us proud to be Africans, and the world envious of what we have. There are better ways of funding conservation than selling ivory.


 Download a pdf of this post: 24 Experts Oppose Legalized Ivory Trade


Photograph courtesy Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative
Photograph courtesy Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

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Meet the Author

Katarzyna Nowak
Katarzyna Nowak is a conservation scientist affiliated with the Zoology Department at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, South Africa. She has spent fifteen years researching and writing about the behavior and conservation of wild monkeys and elephants, and human-wildlife interactions. She helped establish and advises the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program. She's currently based in Colorado's Front Range. Photo credit: Trevor Jones