Terrorists, Tusks and the Ivory Crush

photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Today ivory sells on the black market for about $1500US per pound. Al-Shabab, a Somali splinter cell of al Qaida, raises $600,000 per month from poaching activities. Local African warlords and international crime syndicates fund their own violent and illegal activities through ivory poaching. Any reduction in the supply of legal ivory to growing middle class markets in China will skyrocket prices for illegal supplies, with profit margins for terrorist groups, warlords and criminals escalating correspondingly.

Recently the Obama administration announced that US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) would promulgate a rule that would ban ivory sales in the United States. Government agencies around the world have postured with high profile ivory crushes and burns from China to the United States and Kenya. Even Prince William wants to crush the Royal ivory collection in the UK. This week the Administrations’ Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking will meet to discuss their strategy to enact  a rule ending legal trade in the US. But will destroying stockpiles of ivory and criminalizing legal trade really stop ivory poaching in Africa? There is no evidence to support that belief.

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” ~Thomas Sowell

While seemingly noble, these measures are largely symbolic and are likely to drive the price of ivory up by creating scarcity. Markets are driven by supply and demand. When the supply is reduced and the demand continues or increases, prices move up. Even the perception of scarcity puts upward pressure on markets. This is all Economics 101, and it applies equally to legal and illegal markets.

The face of ivory poaching in Africa

The face of ivory poaching in Africa

Propaganda in support of the ivory crush theory suggests that eliminating the world’s stock piles of ivory and criminalizing legal trade works to discourage black-market trade; that somehow legal trade provides cover for illegal trade. The opposite effect is far more likely. Without a significant decrease in the demand for ivory, scarcity, even perceived scarcity, will likely drive the price for illicit ivory to all time highs. Black-market trade will become more lucrative than ever. Criminals will be emboldened by the world’s inability to protect elephants in Africa, nor implement a workable strategy to reduce demand in ivory markets.

Instead of crushing valuable stockpiles of ivory in a grand symbolic gesture, sell the ivory in legal markets and use the money for elephant conservation. This is not about writing symbolic checks that are the fodder of photo ops and behind the scenes corruption– but about putting beans and bullets directly on the ground to be used by the rangers who need them. We should use money from legal ivory sales  for the recruitment and training of additional personnel, outfit them with the equipment they need, and deploy them to fight sophisticated poaching rings. Crushing ivory out of existence only increases it’s value on the black market.

Ivory poaching is funding international terrorism. Making it more difficult and more dangerous to kill elephants, while educating  the Chinese to the realities of ivory trade, will mitigate the flow of money from ivory to terrorist activities.

Al-Shabab makes $600,000 per month on poaching and employs child soldiers.

Al-Shabab makes $600,000 per month on poaching and employs child soldiers

Money from legal ivory sales could fund educational programs targeting the Chinese middle class.

Making legal trade illegal and turning good citizens into criminals will make it easier for FWS to make cases against Americans here at home, but it fails to address the hard work of catching poachers and real criminals that are determined to kill every living elephant.

We should utilize the groups that have the most at stake in elephant conservation. Hunting groups, gun and equipment manufacturers, and NGO’s. They all need to step up to the plate and play a larger role in preservation of the species they value. Protecting elephants as a resource that will be available for future generations should be a common goal of all of these interest groups. The focus needs to be on leveraging relationships on the ground in Africa, and empowering small specialized projects that get equipment, supplies, manpower and training where they are needed most. We should be using the legal sale of confiscated ivory to fund putting boots on the ground to undercut poaching.

Additionally, a larger effort needs to go into educating middle class ivory consumers in China. Again, NGO’s funded in part by legal sales of ivory could create a model for education– essentially an “issue campaign” to change the hearts and minds that currently have such an appetite for ivory and a steadfast superstition that tusks grow like human fingernails.

If we insist on going down the primrose path of symbolic conservation gestures that actually aggravate the situation,  while wasting what could be irreplaceable conservation dollars from ivory stockpiles, we fail. We will never address the  fundamentals of supply and demand. Our current course will make it so lucrative and easy for criminals and terrorists to continue their activities that elephant populations could be pushed to the brink.

Funding for elephant conservation is limited. Criminalizing legal trade of ivory at home is foolish, ineffective and distracts from actual conservation. We are running out of time for the usual tortured process of political posturing and the stroking of egos. We need to get resources on the ground and limit markets in short order. Elephants died for the ivory being crushed. Should their deaths be for naught? Use the money from legal sales of ivory to protect the future of elephants for generations to come. Stop the ivory crush.


WyattP2The ivory crush and other wildlife issues are highly charged and contentious. I specialize in working with clients to employ campaign style tactics to change hearts and minds on vital issues in the wildlife sector. Please follow The Last Word for insight and analysis particular to the 21st century wildlife sector. If you would like to discuss the potential advantages of running a targeted issue campaign, and/or a comprehensive government affairs strategy, please call or email me. ~ Andrew Wyatt

9 thoughts on “Terrorists, Tusks and the Ivory Crush

  1. Upset about this whole situation. I would like to be in Africa protecting the Elephants. They were here before us and we have to figure out how to stop this awful greed and make sure they survive. I wish there was some answer to resolve this situation. Once again humans destroying precious life for our own gain.

  2. The greatest irony of all within the proposed ban is the so-called “fat-cat loophole”. The news hasn’t focused on this much, but one IMPORTANT clause in the new law would allow any American “hunter” to travel to Africa and slaughter up to TWO Elephants per year!

    Of course, you’ll have to be rich and powerful like the Obamas (Michelle Obama reportedly owns and regularly wears elephant ivory jewelry), or some fat-cat congressmen or Safari Club member or guys like that – AND you’ll have to pay hefty fees for USFWS permits to massacre those majestic adult Elephants and import their huge tusks back to the U.S. But hey, what’s $50k – $60k when you’re having fun slaughtering elephants?

    Meanwhile, an unaware/innocent American tourist visiting China could easily buy a tiny little Elephant ivory bracelet made of LEGAL ivory in the LEGAL Chinese carving market and get “caught” with it in her suitcase when she gets to U.S. Customs. At that point she would be facing as much as FIVE years in prison, and fines & “restitution” that could bankrupt her (literally). All this, even though the ivory SHE had came from the HUNDREDS of TONS of legal “natural death” ivory that falls to the African floor every year.

    That’s right, fellow citizen, a massive amount of ivory falls to the African floor every year, simply because Elephants don’t live forever. The African Elephant has a natural mortality rate of 4% – 7% per year, depending on their location – over the entire African continent it averages 5.5%. That amounts to about 25,500 Elephants that will die every year without a single one being “poached”.
    Since a large percentage of those natural deaths occur among older Elephants the bodies they leave behind will typically bear large tusks, and that “free” ivory does not rot or biodegrade. The estimates among experts in Elephants and the ivory trade put that annual amount of renewable ivory at no less than 100 TONS and as much as 900 TONS. That’s EVERY YEAR.

    If you really care about Elephants there are four VERY important questions you need to ask yourself, your friends, and your government:

    1) Why would the White House and USFWS be pushing a regulation to supposedly PREVENT Elephant deaths, but then sell permits to rich people allowing them to KILL Elephants… AND let them import the ivory back to the U.S.?
    2) With the U.S. deficit at $17.5 Trillion, and growing by $2.75 Billion every day, who will be funding the millions upon millions of dollars need to manage and protect African elephants in African nations so poor they can’t even afford to feed their own children?

    3) What should the world do with the hundreds of tons of ivory that fall to the African floor every year worth hundreds of millions of dollars, since it won’t rot and it doesn’t biodegrade?

    4) Why not use the perpetually renewable resource of natural death ivory to end poaching, fund Elephant protection and conservation, and feed and employ millions of starving Africans?

    • Thomas- Your emotionally charged rhetoric in regards to legal and sustainable practices are indicative of an ideological bias that has little to do with anti-poaching efforts. The actions by FWS are largely symbolic efforts in a political stand against elephant poaching. They are not intended to inhibit legal and sustainable hunting. Much as some would like to blur the lines of distinction, legal hunting is not poaching… and no one out there outside of the animal rights industry believes otherwise. Bringing legal hunting into the poaching debate is simply a red herring.

      Your remarks about how to fund elephant conservation thru the legal sale of confiscated and “natural death” ivory are right on point. It would be a travesty to destroy all those irreplaceable conservation dollars when they could be injected into the fight against poaching. The enemy is poaching and the criminal enterprises that profit from it. Confiscated and “natural death” ivory can be used to fund the fight to stop them.

      • Let’s not get personal, Paul. You have no idea whatsoever what my “ideological bias” might be, and it’s insulting for you to smugly pose as if you do. You don’t know me “like that” – but I do invite you to contact me for a “meet & greet” and private discussion if you like.

        Legal hunting may not be “poaching” per se, but it certainly IS killing elephants for fun and for their tusks – and it’s only “legal” because the USFWS regulation contains a loophole for the rich and powerful. The truth of that should infuriate the very conservation-minded zealots who seem to be blindly championing this highly questionable proposed regulation.

        I believe the ONLY way to ensure of saving the elephants is to establish a controlled, regulated, and heavily monitored LEGAL trade in natural-death ivory – that is, ivory taken only after an elephant has died as a result of natural causes. Currently – at a rate of about 25,000 annually – there is significantly more ivory available from that renewable source then there has EVER been from poaching. The entire world’s market could be more than met without a single elephant killed illegally if we could just see the sense in such a plan – but a big part of that is helping ALL realize the facts. Those facts include the inconvenient (for you, I guess) truth that USFWS is sanctioning the killing of elephants for fun and for their ivory IF we will just pay them for that permission. I have a very hard time imagining a greater conflict of interest, and I would urge anyone reading this to see it that way as well.

  3. National Geographic Letters to the Editor
    National Geographic Magazine
    PO Box 98199
    Washington,DC 20090-8199

    In your “NEXT” section of the December 2013 issue you write about the June 21, 2013 Ivory Crush in Manila in which five tons of ivory were crushed.

    How stupid! Daniel Leaky (of the famous National Geographic Leaky family) and Daniel Moi (Then president of Kenya ) “burned” tons of ivory, reputedly the accumulated “poacher stock” in Nairobi in 1989 (I was in South Africa at the time), but it is believed that their “stock” was not Kenyan ivory, but ivory confiscated from poachers (and dealers) from other countries. The world was told that the ivory was “burned”, despite the fact that ivory does not burn but can be badly damaged by fire. The resulting depression of the worldwide ivory price was temporary at best.
    Other “ivory destruction” of stockpiles of confiscated ivory have occurred in Africa, Philippines and other countries, only to see prices rise and demand continue.

    If the ivory scheduled for destruction were to be sold at current market prices, the income could be used to increase protection of elephants in threatened areas, provide habitat protection, provide income (and employment) to locals, and increase income from tourist dollars. As National Geographic has pointed out, tourism accounts for one in eleven jobs on the planet.

    Greed makes for destruction of national resources. Elephants do not have to be killed for their ivory. All elephants die eventually. If protected, the tusks can easily be pulled from the carcasses after death, resulting in more mature ivory and longer tusks.

    Spencer Thornton, M.D.

    Spencer P. Thornton, M.D., FACS
    Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology
    Department of Ophthalmology
    University of Tennessee Health Science Center
    Memphis, Tennessee
    This is a letter that I wrote to the National Geographic in December 2013.
    In response I got a nice “kiss off” letter and no other response.

  4. Quick correction – my previous remarks were meant for Andrew Wyatt, not “Paul”. Sorry for the confusion.

  5. Pingback: The Wrong Way to Protect Elephants | The Last Word

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