More African elephants (Loxodonta africana) were illegally killed in 2011, the last year for which data is available, than in any year since international commercial trade in ivory was banned by CITES in 1989. Since the ban, two “one-off” sales have been approved by CITES: the first in 1997, to Japan and the second, in 2008, to Japan and China. After 2008, there has been a sharp, upward spike in the number of elephants poached. The CITES program, Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), data illustrates this trend: the overall lower and upper bounds of percentages of all elephant populations killed illegally ranged from 1.7 to 5.9 in 2008 and increased to 3.5 to 11.7 in 2011 (1). The Central population fared the worst, with lower and upper ranges hitting 5.8 and 22.9 percent in 2011. According to the MIKE report, since elephant populations do not usually increase at more than 5% per annum and the upper ranges of all four sub-regions exceed that percentage in 2011, it is likely that the population in each of the regions is in net decline (2).

Because the surge in poaching was noted at the same time China was allowed to buy ivory, and as a number of large consignments have been intercepted allegedly on their way into China, many people say China is “the problem”. Illegal ivory trade and the effectiveness of the ban will be topics of much heated debate at CoP16, which will take place 3-14 March 2013. CITES commissioned an independent study in 2011 to develop a decision-making mechanism and process for future trade in elephant ivory. Among other things, the study explores the conditions under which international trade could take place. This report, ‘Decision-making mechanism for a future trade in elephant ivory’, which was completed in 2012, is the subject of two agenda items (3).  

It is of obvious importance to understand the relationship, if any, between legal sales of ivory in China and the recent spike in poaching. Concerns have been raised that 1) the availability of ivory in China has stimulated and legitimized demand for ivory overall, resulting in increased incentives for poachers, and 2) the legal trading regime provides a cover to launder illegal ivory.  Dr. Brendan Moyle and I went to China in January 2013 to investigate. We wanted to assess the current monitoring and control system for vulnerability, or weak points where illegally obtained (or fake) ivory could be slipped into the legal channel. We also wanted to see how the legal market could influence the illegal. For instance, the legal market could act as a front for laundered ivory, or alternatively, could be “crowding-out” some of the illegal sellers. This required a deeper appreciation of both the regulatory and economic aspects of this market. As the TRAFFIC Elephant Trade Information (ETIS) Report that is being discussed at CoP16 notes: “looking at individual drivers…in isolation from other factors will not produce accurate and meaningful results” (4).

We also wanted to see how legal and illegal markets might be related, and what influence they might have on each other. Since the sale of ivory to China, there are many reports on the illegal killing of elephants in Africa and the export of ivory, but to date there is no study on the scale and nature of demand in China, how it monitors and controls legal ivory stocks, and how effectively it is able to control legal sales, let alone any hard analysis on the interplay between legal and illegal markets in China. Our study will be the first to tackle some of these issues. 

We visited five cities: Beijing, Harbin, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. We met with people from all facets of the ivory industry: factory owners, carvers, guilds, wholesalers, retailers, law enforcement, those responsible for the monitoring and control system, and, of course, customers. Because our trip was sponsored by the International Fund for Elephant Conservation (5), which was established by the quasi-governmental China Wildlife Conservation Association, Dr. Moyle and I enjoyed access that is not freely available. We were able to spend lengthy periods with key industry players.

We now understand how the industry is structured and managed. The concept that there is one market for ivory is as nonsensical as there being one population of elephants in Africa. We know how the uncertainty of supply has impacted the carving profession. We appreciate why and how different people value ivory, but we did not undertake a quantitative study of demand and its trends. We did not make an exhaustive search of all retail outlets, nor did we collect extensive price information on the trip because we determined it was too “noisy” to preserve a good signal. (By “noisy” we mean that prices at retail levels are influenced by many factors, including ivory quality, size, design, and expertise of the carver.)

While we are still doing the analysis, we think it is difficult to see how any large amounts of illegal ivory could be laundered into the government’s management and control system. There appear to be economic and regulatory factors that are separating the legal and illegal markets, thereby frustrating laundering. This appears to be a dynamic process. In the next edition of SULiNews, we will report on our findings.

Kirsten Conrad is a consultant based in Singapore.


(1) CoP16 Doc. 53.1
(2) CoP16 Doc. 53.1, p. 8
(3) CoP16 Doc. 36 (Rev. 1) and CoP16 Doc. 37 (Rev. 1)
(4) CoP16 Doc. 53.2.2 (Rev. 1)

Photo: Below and top right - Ivory butterfly. Credit: Brendan Moyle.