Destroying Poached Ivory May Do The Opposite Of Its Intended Effect

CREDIT: AP/Sakchai Lalit

Thai authorities destroyed more than 2 tons of seized and smuggled ivory on Wednesday, the latest move by the government to avoid possible economic sanctions over its perceived failure to tackle the illicit trade.

Thailand crushed and incinerated two tons of ivory from its stockpile on Wednesday. The move was praised by conservation groups who have long believed that the country has turned a blind eye toward illegal trade of ivory.

“For too long Thailand has been exploited by wildlife criminals as both a gateway and marketplace for ivory poached in Africa and Asia,” Janpai Ongsiriwittaya of the World Wildlife Foundation said in a statement.

Noting several regulatory steps the country has taken to protect elephants and crack down on illicit ivory trade, she said, “Thailand’s ivory destruction is more than just a symbolic event.”

While many conservation groups have called countries that supply ivory and those that buy it to destroy the stockpiles of ivory they seize at their borders or collect from national parks as a way to curb demand, the impact of such efforts are complex and not well-studied.

“Ivory destruction events remove ivory from supply and potentially signal to the market that the commodity is getting scarcer,” Tom Milliken of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, said in an email to ThinkProgress.

Economic theory holds that as ivory becomes scarcer, the price for ivory will rise. Since people tend to buy ivory even as its prices rise, those involved in illegally trafficking and trading ivory might stand to make higher profits by continuing to sell ivory.

If that argument holds, Milliken wrote, “[P]oaching of elephants will continue and possibly even increase.”

“On the other hand,” he said, “the messaging behind destruction events in end-use markets can serve to dissuade some potential consumers from buying ivory.”

In other words, the economic impact of destroying ivory could go either way. But there are other considerations as well.

Ivory trade experts Dan Stiles and Brendan Moyle maintain that destroying ivory won’t change the factors that facilitate poaching. They wrote in an op-ed for the South China Morning Post after Hong Kong began to destroy its stockpile of ivory last year:

The rise in poaching is not a puzzle. Nor is it a recent problem. It is a result of increasing affluence in Asia and increasing trade and investment between East Asia and Africa. It’s also a result of instability and weak governance in Africa. The destruction of ivory has no effect on these factors. Civil war in Central Africa won’t stop because Hong Kong destroys ivory. Chinese consumers won’t become poorer because Hong Kong destroys ivory. Countries have been destroying ivory since Kenya burnt 12 tons of it in 1989, and it hasn’t made a dent in the illegal trade.

They warned against the destruction of ivory as a risky way to try to drive down demand. 

“It’s a gamble,” they wrote. “A well-meaning gamble to be sure, but a gamble that could backfire — badly.”

In March, Kenyan officials set fifteen tons of elephant tusks on fire during an anti-poaching ceremony at Nairobi National Park in Nairobi, Kenya.

In March, Kenyan officials set fifteen tons of elephant tusks on fire during an anti-poaching ceremony at Nairobi National Park in Nairobi, Kenya.

Even so, it’s a gamble that many countries have taken since Kenya first opted to do so in a bid to have elephants added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – and thus ban the trade of ivory. Kenya set another 15 tons of ivory ablaze in March. Gabon burned its entire stockpile in June 2012. The following year, the Philippines became the first country outside of Africa to burn its ivory.

Conservation groups have also called on private citizens of various countries to give up ivory they feel uncomfortable owning for symbolic public destruction events. Some 2,000 pounds of ivory were destroyed at such an event in New York City’s Times Square in June.

Beyond the symbolism of these events, some feel that destroying ivory ensures that it’s kept out of the black market.

Some have argued that doing so is important because ivory held by the government has been known to go missing, likely because it was stolen and sold by corrupt officials. Having to keep close watch over masses of ivory from theft can be costly.

Tanzania spent $75,000 a year on guarding 12,000-some tusks. In total, the country has nearly 120,000 tons of both legal ivory from elephants that died of natural causes as well as illegal, poached, ivory that is valued at upwards of $50 million in total.

The east African country has been a particularly unsafe home for elephants. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, Tanzania has lost 60 percent of its elephants in the last five years, primarily due to poaching.

The WWF estimates that only 500,000 African elephants remain in the wild, down from at least three million. About 100,000 elephants are lost to poaching every year.

While leaders of Tanzania, Botswana, Gabon, and Chad agreed to a 10-year moratorium on the sale of ivory last year, many conservation organizations agree that destroying ivory is the only way to ensure that it will not enter into black markets. 

Some have called for the markets to be flooded with ivory, a move that they believe would drive down the costs of ivory and making poaching less lucrative.

To that point, environmental journalist Karl Mathiesen wrote in the Guardian: “It might stop gangs from profiting from the trade for a few years. But when the stockpiles of cheap ivory are exhausted and ivory has become an acceptable, accessible commodity, the market will be ripe for criminal vultures and speculators to profit from an even bigger demand than exists today.” 

The only way to render the ivory completely worthless, according to a non-profit organization called Burn the Ivory, is to do just that: “By destroying stockpiles, a clear message would be conveyed that elephants are worth more alive than dead.”

It is true that living elephants are worth a great deal more than their tusks. According to one recent study, one live, adult, elephant brings in about $1.6 million from tourism during the course of its life — that’s 76 times more than the price its tusks fetch on the black market.

It’s because both sides of the economic argument have weight that both the supply and demand of ivory have to be curbed to try to save elephants from being killed for their tusks.

“We have to tackle this from both ends of the trade, stopping the poaching of elephants where they exist in the wild and reducing demand for ivory in the markets presently consuming ivory,” Milliken told ThinkProgress. “To do so, demand for ivory worldwide has to be reduced to levels whereby the incentive to kill elephants to supply ivory no longer exists.”