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Ivory burns meaningless if the market isn’t tracked

Ivory burns meaningless if the market isn’t tracked
1 kilogram of elephant tusk can fetch as much as $1700 in the Asian black market. Photo: Daniel Seed

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Burning ivory stockpiles is meaningless without the data tracking the impact on illegal trade and is merely symbolic if the message fails to reach the right people.

Dr Duan Biggs from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED), says ivory burns and stockpile destruction have increased by more than 600 per cent since 2011, but the impact on ivory trade is not being measured.

On April 30, 105 tonnes of ivory were stacked into 11 large pyres, with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, flanked by military security setting the first stack alight.

The burn event had the aim of sending a message to ivory customers around the world – you can’t buy this lot, and you won’t get the next lot either, so you can stop trying.

Elephant conservation proponents around the world celebrated the burning as a strong and public display of resistance against the trade in illicit ivory, predominately to East Asian nations.

Dr Biggs said however, burning the stockpiles is pointless if the effect on price and demand within black markets is not monitored.

“At this point in time, we don’t know what burning ivory does – it’s not being monitored,” Dr Biggs said.

“If you’re burning the product – and it was a substantial amount, somewhere between five and ten per cent of the known stockpiles globally that were burnt – that’s a substantial form of potential supply that’s being destroyed.

“If you’re someone who is trading in ivory, you have additional incentive to get more ivory as the price goes up, and you’d probably be willing to pay more money to the supply chain and down to the poachers to get the ivory.”

Dr Biggs said tracking the impact of destroying ivory should be a key focus before any event and is the only way to substantiate policy direction.

“In terms of generating the evidence to support evidence-based decision making and evidence-based policy. That should be in place before any major burn – what is the price before the burn and track it after the burn.

“I’ve been involved in research in South America looking at illegal fishing offtake – they’re quite well-established methods following what propensity to buy is, following a change in policy or an event, and what the price is of the product.”

Ivory burns: right message, wrong audience

Countries participating in ivory burns, as well as those strengthening import and ownership legislation are well-intentioned, unless the message is received by the right people it is a moot argument.

“We all agree and are all very passionate about elephant conservation,” Dr Biggs said, “but some organisations and governments think destroying ivory is a good idea … think ‘we’re making this major statement and we’re feeling good about it’.

“There is not actually that much thought about whether the statement is going to help the end objective of conserving elephants.

“People feel, ‘well this is really terrible what’s happening with elephants and people buying and selling ivory. Let’s destroy a bunch to make a message –we’ll feel really good about it’.

“Actually, it might just be you feeling good about it and the message isn’t getting across to where it needs to be to actually reduce demand and conserve elephants.

Elephant with baby after bathing. Mother elephant is using trunk to spray sand over herself.
The average weight of elephants tusks is 23-45 kilograms.
Photo: Daniel Seed

“Quite absolutist action is taken in the destruction of ivory, and the people that think it’s a good idea feel good about it and they make a big fuss about it but we don’t know if the message is getting to where we want it to get.”

Each year more than 30,000 elephants are killed for their ivory by poachers in Africa to satisfy demand in Asia where raw tusks sell for up to $2100 per kilogram. Africa is home to about 500,000 elephants.

Former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi began incinerating stockpiles of ivory in 1989 at the same time as the ban on the international trade in ivory came into effect.

CEED Director Professor Hugh Possingham said it was crucial to track the effects of Kenya’s largest ever ivory burn with data on ivory price and demand.

“The way in which ivory burns affect the attitudes of potential buyers in the markets of East Asia should be assessed,” Professor Possingham said.

“Time is short and the stakes are high.”

Dr Biggs said tracking the market impacts is most effective by interacting with the market itself.

“If we’re actually interested in reaching the consumer in East Asia, then let’s go and talk to them, let’s go and do surveys with them, let’s understand how they think.

“If we are going to do events like destruction of ivory, let’s design them – and communications – in a way so we maximize the opportunity and the chance the message will get where we want it to be and that we track that.

“If it worked, let’s do it in the same way again – if it didn’t work, then we can improve on what we’re doing and evaluate what we’re doing. At the moment I see no sign of that.

An African elephant curling it's trunk around a large bush in Kruger National Park.
30 per cent of tree species in central African forest rely on elephants for seed dispersal and germination.
Photo: Daniel Seed

Elephants as ‘renewable resources’

Africa, home to 54 independent nations, is often mistakenly seen as a homogenous entity. There is however, a wide variance in the stance of national governments within the continent on trading ivory across the globe.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a 2015 speech, “In order to underline our determination to eradicate poaching, my Government shall burn the rest of the stockpile within this year.

“We hope the rest of the world will follow our action in the same manner.

“We want future generations of Kenyans, Africans and the entire world to experience the majesty and beauty of these magnificent beasts.

“Poachers and their enablers will not have the last word.”

Other nations, such as Zimbabwe and Namibia, are advocating a change to international regulations because of the economic benefits the ivory trade brings to the developing nations. The Zimbabwean CAMPFIRE program (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources), initially supported by the US, sees elephants as a ‘renewable resource’ for economic and conservational benefits. Licences to trophy hunt beasts are sold to hunters – one bull elephant was sold at auction for $US45,000 in 2014 – with funds being returned to the local Zimbabwean communities. These funds are, at least in theory, used for conservation and protection efforts.

It’s an argument easy to criticise but Dr Biggs said the destruction of substantial amounts of ivory can come at a great cost to very poor communities.

“The people in southern Africa, countries that have historically been more in favour of selling ivory, would argue that you’ve just destroyed $250 million.”

A close-up side profile of an adult African elephant, with African plains in the background.
African elephant populations have dwindled to just 470,000, down from 1.3m in 1980.
Photo: Daniel Seed

On June 2, the US Fish & Wildlife Service announced legislative changes creating a near-total ban on the import of any African elephant ivory.

US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell encouraged countries around the world to follow suit.

“We hope other nations will act quickly and decisively to stop the flow of blood ivory by implementing similar regulations, which are crucial to ensuring our grandchildren and their children know these iconic species,” Ms Jewell said in a statement.

Dr Biggs said the simplifying the argument is tokenistic and fails to address the real concerns.

“[Zimbabwe and Namibia] would like to open up discussion so they can be in a position to sell ivory again.

“That has been impacted recently by changes to US laws and they feel that is reducing their ability to get revenue for conservation and for communities around their conservations.

“Some would argue the tightening down of domestic ivory in the US is very symbolic and will do nothing.

“I’ve got colleagues who feel those domestic restrictions in the US are very, very destructive and counter-productive to elephant conservation.

“Their arguments are that there are countries in Africa that have successfully increased their elephant numbers based on, to some extent, historic ivory exports and also trophy hunting of elephants.”

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing

The argument for or against ivory burns does not need to be an ‘all or nothing’ exercise, nor does the solution need to reinvent the wheel. Dr Biggs said the end goal of elephant conservation should be at the centre of the conversation, rather than what how to deal with the by-products of illicit ivory trade.

“These are people who are very passionate about elephant conservation, which I am as well.

“They feel very strongly about closing down all markets for ivory, as the best way to conserve elephants.

“I’m not sure I agree with that as a good strategy,” he said.

“I’m not saying burning ivory by definition, in principle, is a bad idea.

“It’s critical it is tracked and monitored and it’s critical where consumers or purchasers of ivory are, to understand how they are responding to these events.”

By the numbers

100,000: elephants killed in a recent three year period – or 1 every 15 minutes.

200 grams: amount of ivory allowed to be sold in the US – only in some items such as musical instruments, furniture or firearms – under the 2016 changes.

30 per cent: number of tree species in central African forest relying on elephants for seed dispersal and germination.

23-45 kilograms: average weight of elephants tusks.

1 million: square miles of Africa available for elephants to roam, (down from 3 million in 1980).


1.3 million: African elephant population in 1980.

470,000: African elephant population today.


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