Changing Planet

Link Between Ivory Price Drop and China’s Trade Ban Questioned

By Michael Schwartz

The conservation organization Save the Elephant’s recent claim of a strong association between the sharp decline in raw ivory prices and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September pledge to close China’s domestic ivory markets may be inaccurate, says Daniel Stiles, a conservationist and veteran ivory researcher based in Kenya.

According to Stiles, Save the Elephants’ founder and CEO Iain Douglas-Hamilton commissioned a study on the price of ivory in to verify the findings of an earlier study funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society and led by Stiles.

The WCS funded study, “An Analysis of Ivory Demand Drivers,” by Stiles and coauthors Rowan Martin, Brendan Moyle, and Wei Ji, has not yet been published, but a draft version was previously available. (The full report by Save the Elephants, led by ivory researchers Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, also hasn’t yet been published.)

Stiles notes that his team’s findings of drastically reduced prices of raw ivory occurred well before China made the announcement that it would close domestic markets.

“[Save the Elephants] knew that prices had fallen by more than half in May, because I told Esmond Martin the results of the study,” Stiles says.

“We found that black market prices in May had crashed to $442 per pound ($973 per kilogram). I even sent him a copy of the report for his comments. So to say that the price drop occurred in November partly as the result of the Chinese government’s pledge to ban ivory trade is disingenuous.”

According to the Stiles et al. study, raw ivory prices rose from 2008 to 2012, primarily because Chinese investors “shifted from stocks and property to commodities,” coinciding with the global financial crisis.

It wasn’t until 2013 that the price of ivory began to fall, which also coincided with Chinese investors getting out of commodities as economic conditions improved.

“The gold price curve in China from 2007 to 2014 fits the black market raw ivory price curve very closely,” Stiles says.

Consumer Demand

On their China trip late last year, Martin and Vigne are reported to have found a strong drop in Chinese consumer demand for ivory.

But according to Stiles, “We did not find a drop in demand in the large illegal ivory market sector, which mainly operates on the Internet and person-to-person. It involves primarily cheaper items, like jewelry, chopsticks, and small carvings.

Stiles says the study team did find a big drop in demand “in the much smaller legal sector, which sells the large, expensive, high quality pieces—the pieces that wealthy people invest in.”

These pieces, he says, are sold in shops, like the ones Martin and Vigne surveyed. According to Stiles, ivory seems no longer to be an investment vehicle, and President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is affecting that same luxury segment of the ivory market.

The Stiles et al. study concluded that previous claims that insatiable consumer demand was the main driver of elephant poaching were unfounded.

Out of more than 2,600 tons of illegal ivory exported between 2002 and 2014, the researchers found, up to 1,900 tons could have entered Far Eastern black markets, with 480 tons going elsewhere.

“That massive amount of ivory—1,900 tons—was not processed and purchased by consumers,” Stiles says. “Our statistical modeling concluded that well over 1,000 tons remains in raw form in private stockpiles. This strongly suggests that speculation was at work. Investors were hoarding raw tusks, betting that prices would rise.”

The report that the Stiles team produced is highly technical, but conclusions suggest that perhaps previous ideas about the causes of the elephant poaching crisis and its solutions should be reassessed.

Michael Schwartz is a journalist and African wildlife conservation researcher. With field experience around the continent since 2005, his passion for Africa’s wildlife is matched by his compassion for the people who live there. A significant portion of his field work is carried out in Uganda, where he studies lion and elephant conservation. You can visit his website at

  • Simon Hedges

    The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) would like to correct a mistaken attribution in the interesting article, “Link Between Ivory Price Drop and China’s Trade Ban Questioned”, above. The work by Dr. Dan Stiles, which forms the basis of the blog article by Michael Schwartz, was not “a WCS study” nor was it conducted by “a WCS team”. WCS simply commissioned Dan Stiles to investigate the drivers of the ivory trade in China. WCS commissions work by a range of experts on both sides of contentious debates (such as the ivory trade in this case) to help us formulate our responses. Such commissioned studies are distinct from the studies that our own staff conduct, which are WCS studies by WCS teams.

    We believe that the Stiles et al. report we commissioned contains much useful information and the conclusion that most of the illegal ivory entering China is stockpiled by speculators has significant implications for demand reduction work and for the implementation of China’s proposed ban on domestic sales of elephant ivory. However, we do not agree with everything in the report as will be explained fully in a forthcoming critique by WCS to be published with the final version of the report by Stiles et al. In particular, we do not agree with Stiles’ conclusion that policy changes in China have played no part in the falling price of ivory in the country. We believe Stiles’ focus on trends in the Chinese economy being the primary or even sole drivers of trends in the price of ivory in China is too narrow and that instead a combination of demand reduction campaigns, government policy announcements, and trends in the economy are responsible for the trends in the price of ivory in China.

    In other words, there are likely to be multiple drivers of the price of ivory and that it is difficult to tease apart the relative contributions of these drivers. Indeed, part of the difficulty inherent in teasing apart the drivers of the price of ivory is that there is no one ‘price of ivory’: prices vary depending on whether one is talking about raw ivory or worked ivory, the type and quality of the item, the method of sale (e.g. retail outlets, auctions, sales via social media and the internet more generally), and legality. Nor do we agree that “previous claims that insatiable consumer demand was the main driver of elephant poaching were unfounded”; for example, the last full analysis of the CITES’ Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program found that “trends in household consumption expenditure [in China] were strongly related to PIKE [Proportion of Illegal Killed Elephants] levels”

    We also distance ourselves from Stiles’ criticisms of the ivory survey conducted in China late last year by Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne for Save the Elephants (STE). In our opinion, it is only to the good that this STE-funded work was conducted and among other things it showed that prices of ivory in China have remained low since the work by the Stiles team earlier in the year. In that regard, please see the Huffington Post blog article by myself and Susan Lieberman on the value of the STE-funded surveys at

    Simon Hedges
    Elephant Coordinator & Ivory Trade Policy Analyst, Wildlife Conservation Society

  • Daniel Stiles

    I certainly agree fully with James Fields and I have tried to put forth workable – but unpopular – policies aimed at curbing elephant poaching to supply ivory, even in the pages of this blog ( The blowback was significant.

    Events have superseded any attempt to initiate a legal raw ivory supply to replace poached ivory. Illegal ivory markets will continue to be supplied from the massacre of elephants. The closing of legal ivory markets in China, the U.S. and other countries will proceed, with varying degrees of effectiveness. This leaves us with only illegal markets, which has been the goal of the anti-trade campaigners. Now China, the U.S. and others must increase their energies towards finding ways to closing, or at least reducing, these markets.

    Even if illegal ivory markets can be greatly reduced in scale, we are still left with the problem of local African communities and governments being deprived of a valuable natural resource. What incentives can be devised that will prevent people who live with elephants and suffer their depredations on crops, homes and lives to keep them around? I strongly oppose the disincentive route – law enforcement – as the main approach. If communities want elephants (and other species) around, that will occur. One need only look at livestock numbers to be sure of that.

    As to the Stiles et al. report, the co-authors did not set out with a predetermined scenario to ‘prove’. We just let the data and modeling speak for themselves. There were surprises even for me. The report itself does not conclude, as Hedges claims, that “policy changes in China have played no part in the falling price of ivory”. The report does not even try to explain it, because we do not have enough information. The lack of information has not deterred WCS and STE to make their own conclusions, however.

    My main criticism of the STE press release was that it presented the impression that the drop in ivory price had occurred after the announcements on 29 May and September by China that the country’s legal market would be closed. That clearly was misleading. The price drop began before May 2015, probably even as early as late 2014. In the last half of May 2015 the illegal prices for tusks averaging 14.2 kg in weight averaged USD 974/kg, with a range of USD 513/kg to USD 1,853/kg.

    Also misleading is Hedges’ statement, “We also distance ourselves from Stiles’ criticisms of the ivory survey conducted in China late last year by Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne for Save the Elephants (STE)”. I have made no comment whatsoever about their most recent survey, as there isn’t a report prepared yet and nothing to criticize.

    One last point I would like to make is that we only have good information about a drop in ivory demand in China for the legal market sector. I am in China now and have had this confirmed from a very reliable source. Demand for ivory produced by legal factories has been dropping for over two years, but it dropped significantly after the government announcements of an impending ban. But this is only since September. Why the illegal ivory price began dropping before May is still open for analysis and discussion.

    There is no legal ivory price now, because the registered factories have stopped buying raw ivory.

    We don’t know what has happened with demand in the illegal sector, which is vastly bigger than the legal sector, even at the legal sector’s height in 2011-2013. The Stiles et al. report estimated that there is a huge amount of illegal stockpiled raw ivory, well over 1,000 metric tons. What will happen with it? Why are elephants still being poached at such a high degree with legal markets on their way out?

    The legal ivory market issue may have been resolved to the anti-trade campaigners’ satisfaction, but the elephant poaching problem is unfortunately still with us.

  • Fiona Gordon

    Question regarding this statement in the article: “Our statistical modeling concluded that well over 1,000 tons remains in raw form in private stockpiles. This strongly suggests that speculation was at work. Investors were hoarding raw tusks, betting that prices would rise.”

    Can you clarify why investors would be speculating on prices for ivory rising – due to increased scarcity of ivory as elephant populations plummet, or scarcity due to confiscated ivory stockpile destruction (of which there are growing numbers) or scarcity due to increasing number of ivory trade bans (or announcements of) by various countries?
    Questions: Is it not also possible that rather than speculating on the price of illegal ivory increasing, investors were stockpiling in anticipation of (betting on) the re-opening of a future legal international ivory trade through which they could then launder their illegal stockpile – eg. hedging their bets on the reopening of a trade via any outcome of the CITES Decision Making Mechanism for legal ivory trading (DMM)? Has the study included mention of, or an assessment of, the ongoing CITES DMM discussions as a driver (potential driver or incentive) when evaluating why people may be investing or stockpiling illegal ivory and/or the price of ivory? How do the authors view the CITES Decision Making Mechanism discussions as part of their analysis on the price of ivory? Thank you.

  • Daniel Stiles

    To answer Fiona’s questions – I think that investors in raw ivory would believe prices would continue rising primarily because of increased scarcity caused by dropping elephant population numbers and stockpile destruction events. Announcements of domestic ivory trade bans do not create perceptions of scarcity, or actual scarcity. The same quantity of ivory exists before and after, only the status of a very small portion of it changes from legal to illegal. Speculators after 2008 were also searching for somewhere safe to place their money with the onset of the Global Financial Crisis and crash of stock markets and property values. They bought commodities, which resulted in the massive rise in all commodity prices, not just of ivory.

    The question concerning the DMM and potential future laundering displays a lack of understanding of the ivory markets and how they operate. No informed speculator has believed that CITES will vote to allow legal raw ivory sales since 2007, when CITES voted the 9-year moratorium on such sales for Appendix II countries. Uninformed speculators became informed ones in 2010 when the applications to sell ivory of Zambia and Tanzania (Appendix I countries) were soundly defeated at the 15th CoP in Doha. The ailing DMM process died completely in 2013 with the rejection of the report on it at CoP16 in Bangkok. It will receive an unceremonious burial at CoP17 and any informed person knows that, including the ivory speculators.

    Too much has been made of a legal trade allowing for the “laundering” of illegal ivory, especially in China. Since early 2015 there have only been 130 outlets in all of China where legal ivory could be sold (145 outlets 2013-2015). This is in a country that has 170 cities of over one million people! The opportunities for laundering are miniscule, insignificant. Ivory cannot legally be sold online, at auction houses or any other way. No laundering takes place outside of 130 physical shops, it is ALL unambiguously illegal if sold elsewhere. I believe some illegal ivory has crept into some of the 130 shops, mainly because of a shortage of legal ivory, but the quantities are tiny in comparison to the hundreds of tons of raw ivory being smuggled into China every year.

    Raw ivory prices in China have tumbled along with all commodity prices over the past several months, but because of uncertainty over other investment outcomes, elephant poaching and ivory seizure rates seem to suggest that – like gold – ivory continues to be an attractive investment for some. The drop in price might actually be perceived as an investment opportunity, unfortunately.

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