One-Off Legal Sale Of Ivory Stockpiles Led To A Dramatic Increase In Elephant Poaching

Legally selling ivory stockpiles led to a huge surge in demand, and not a slump in price. Svetlana Foote/Shutterstock
Josh Davis 14 Jun 2016, 15:43

Despite introducing an international ban on the legal sale of ivory in 1989, this has done little to quell the debate over whether or not it should be allowed. Conservationists, researchers, and economists have gone back and forth over the last few decades with little consensus reached. The on/off sales of ivory stockpiles held by governments has allowed researchers to look into the impact that putting legal ivory onto the market has. And it doesn’t look good.

The argument goes that while there is a ban on the sale of ivory, as detailed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), this has done little to stem the demand and thus the trade. In fact, African elephants are now being slaughtered at such a rate that more are being killed than being born, clearly showing that something isn’t working. Proponents of legalizing the trade, at least to a limited extent, argue that the ban is simply driving up demand.

They reason that the nations at the heart of the trade, namely those in east Africa, house vast stockpiles of ivory, numbering in the hundreds of tonnes, which has already been confiscated from poachers and criminal gangs. If they sold these to the buyers in Asia, they could swamp the market causing the value of the ivory to crash and thus removing the economic incentive to kill more of the animals. Or so the argument goes. It was under this reasoning that 107 tonnes (117 tons) of ivory was sold to China and Japan in 2008 for $15 million. A new study shows just how badly this backfired.

“We now have pretty striking evidence that these sales can be catastrophic,” explains Professor Solomon Hsiang, who co-authored the paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, to The Guardian. “It backfired in a very bad way.” The study suggests that the legal sale of ivory in 2008 sent out the message that it was OK to buy, reducing the stigma and boosting the demand, not quashing it. This, in turn, has led to a spike in poaching of African elephants (20,000 alone in 2015), with an incredible 66 percent increase in illegal ivory production across two continents, and a 71 percent increase in ivory smuggling.

Not only that, but it attributes the recent dramatic and concerning surge in poaching to this 2008 sale. “These data suggest the widely documented recent increase in elephant poaching likely originated with the legal sale,” the authors write. Supplying damning evidence showing the cost of such legal sales in stark terms, the researchers are finally able to present some hard data on the issue, something that perhaps Namibia and Zimbabwe should pay attention to as they think about selling off their own stockpiles. 

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