Every tusk costs a life. That was the ominous theme of a 30-second clip shown on a public-funded billboard in Manhattan’s Times Square. It was direct, bold and all too brief. For one month in the Autumn of 2013, there was an elephant in New York City, flashing on a large screen, 24 hours a day for countless Americans and tourists to see. But like so many others fallen victim to gun, arrow and spear, this African giant was eventually taken down.

Though far removed from Africa, many Americans are disturbed by the thought of elephants being slaughtered for their tusks. It’s a crisis that’s prompted anger, sadness and an outcry to end it.
It’s also compelled US federal and non-governmental organisations to act. In 2013, President Barack Obama issued a series of orders to institute an almost complete ban on the commercial ivory trade. Various US-based NGOs, such as the Clinton Global Initiative and the Wildlife Conservation Society, bolstered funding efforts to increase law enforcement, impose stiffer penalties for wildlife traffickers, and ensure better inter-agency cooperation. And then there was the public burning in Colorado in November 2013 of roughly six tons of stockpiled ivory.
The thinking behind this united approach is simple – the only way to put an end to the killing is to adopt a zero-tolerance policy, and the feeling in the US is almost unanimously behind eliminating the poaching. But that’s the easy part.
In general, there are two fundamental differences of opinion in the US about the ivory trade. The first calls for temporary regulated continuation of the trade to satisfy current ivory appetites, while simultaneously chipping away at demand. The second follows a more aggressive strategy of banning the trade outright, combatting wildlife traffickers through enhanced policing measures, doing away with reserve supplies, and creating public awareness in one fell swoop. So which is the better approach? I spoke with a couple of American wildlife conservationists to get their take.

Chad president Idriss Déby Itno sets ivory alight in Goza Jarat at the entrance to Zakouma National Park, 2014.
©African Parks/AFP/Marco LongariI

‘Having lived and worked in Africa since the late 1960s, and Asia since the 1970s, I’ve learned that corruption is so endemic in the major ivory supply and consumption countries, that law enforcement will never succeed in making even a small dent in halting ivory trafficking and the poaching of elephants,’ says Dr. Dan Stiles, a Montana native and conservationist who’s spent years studying global ivory markets. He wastes no time explaining his lack of faith in recent bans on commercial sales. ‘The message of zero tolerance is not sent to poachers or traffickers, it is sent to the NGOs who sponsor it, and to the public of mainly Western countries who contribute money to those NGOs.’

The ban consumes more illegal tusks while leaving demand untouched

Stiles says that ameliorating the trafficking through increased law enforcement strategies, and burning contraband stockpiles is altruistic, but impractical, and economically flawed. ‘To turn off supply while demand remains high is a bit like running your house heating and air-conditioning at the same time. It just consumes more energy, and achieves no temperature change. The ban consumes more illegal tusks while leaving demand untouched. It is extremely bad policy, as the great rise in poaching rates after the decision demonstrated. Demand reduction should come first – then start reducing supply.’

Ivory is set alight by authorities in Gabon, 2012.

While he certainly sees the trade as evil, and is working tirelessly to expose it through countless hours of research, Stiles will not back a complete commercial ban for the time being. ‘Demand reduction is one way, certainly the best and most long-lasting, but this approach will take many years,’ he explains. ‘Elephants can’t wait that long. The most sensible thing is to provide legal raw ivory to the factories that currently buy poached tusks in China, and possibly Thailand if the latter can implement an effective system of regulation. Demand is highest in those two countries. It is imperative that the speculative hoarding occurring now in China be stamped out. Speculation and uncertainty about supply is what is wiping out elephants, not so much consumer demand for worked ivory, though that is of course a factor.

The message from stockpile destruction is: buy as much ivory as you can afford now, it’s getting scarcer

His arguments are not unsound. Since 2011 the price of ivory in China has skyrocketed, taking off right around the time when ivory stockpiles were destroyed in Kenya. Recent studies funded by Save the Elephants revealed a tripling of ivory prices in China over the last four years. That upswing, according to the study, is increasing the poaching of African elephants. Stiles says, ‘the message sent to ivory speculators by the stockpile destruction is, buy as much ivory as you can afford now, it is getting scarcer.’


Chatting with African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) CEO Patrick Bergin felt a lot like conversing with an old friend. He’s soft spoken and articulate. His wealth of on-the-ground experience in African wildlife conservation, and successful implementation of species survival programmes has led him from conservation project officer to his current role as leader of the Washington DC- and Nairobi-based organisation. His initial response to the question of the ivory trade pulls no punches. ‘Elephant poaching is not simply wildlife crime. It directly correlates with other illegal activities such as terrorism, drug smuggling and other high levels of organised crime. We must send the unambiguous message that the time for this is over.’

ivory trinkets AWF Barbara von Hoffman
Ivory tusks and trinkets.

In July 2013, Bergin was appointed by President Obama to serve on the Federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, under the US Department of Fish and Wildlife Services and the Department of the Interior. The eight-member panel, co-chaired by Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary General Eric Holder and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, provided specific recommendations for combatting, and ending, the ivory trade. Since confiscated stockpiles cannot legally go onto the commercial market, the decision to destroy them was seen as a powerful public statement with the potential for spillover effects within ivory-hungry nations like China.

If you want to show off your wealth,
buy a painting

To their credit, Hong Kong followed suit when in May 2014 it began burning it’s 28-ton stockpile of seized ivory. For Bergin, this success is attributed to the shift in global opinion, and the need to work towards eliminating the ivory trade. ‘There is an amazing worldwide consensus that African elephants can no longer afford the risk of this situation, and the only way to handle it is to suppress the trade completely. There is no need to buy ivory anymore. If you want to buy expensive items to show off your wealth, buy a nice piece of art such as a painting.’

Ivory trinkets and tusks await destruction at the Hong Kong ivory burn.
©IFAW/Alex Hofford

Bergin’s sentiments show that he has grown tired of negotiating with a bloody trade that’s existed for far too long. It was especially devastating during the 1970s and 1980s when Africa’s elephant population dropped from roughly 1.3 million to 600,000. It wasn’t until CITES banned the international ivory trade in 1989, that elephant numbers started to recover in various populations, for a short period at least. The international ban still applies but, in 1997, CITES downlisted elephant populations in Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe from Appendix I to Appendix II, thus permitting a limited trade. The result was a one-off sale of ivory stockpiles from these countries in 1999. In 2000, South African elephants were downlisted to Appendix II, and Cites approved another one-off sale of stockpiles from all four countries in 2008.

ivory-weight-seizures-graph-2‘The two objectives were to put money from those sales back into the hands of environmental law enforcement to further increase conservation efforts, and to provide support and revenue for local communities,’ Bergin says. The experiment did not work, he continues to explain, because no-one anticipated China’s tremendous economic rise, the huge increase in disposable income in that country, and the significant level of money laundering made possible by that new prosperity.

Demand in Japan fell due to consumer awareness about the connection between purchasing ivory and poaching

Those two one-off sales are perhaps at the heart of the disagreement between conservationists. Many posit that the transactions increased the demand because it was in direct contradiction to the international ban. But, while Stiles agrees that they were a bad idea, he doesn’t view them as directly causing an increase in elephant poaching. Recent research, he claims, shows that demand has decreased since 2012. Stiles also informs me that demand in Japan eventually fell because of effective consumer awareness about the connection between purchasing ivory and the killing of elephants. This is the one issue on which US organisations and wildlife professionals from both sides tend to agree. When done right, eliminating demand through a combination of awareness and education measures can yield great benefits. But it still echoes Stiles’ warning that NGOs are in a fight against a shrinking window of opportunity, as elephants continue to be killed at an alarming rate.

Burn the Ivory Pic 3
©Burn the Ivory

AWF is pushing hard to eliminate the appetite for ivory through a variety of education measures with the belief that the market will change when the people do. Through partnership with NGO WildAid, they have issued key public service announcements in China with popular Chinese personalities like basketball player Yao Ming and actor Li Bingbing supporting the cause. Bergin is optimistic that Chinese people can and will have a dramatic change of heart. ‘A lot of push-back and speculation revolves around the idea that the Chinese have been buying ivory for thousands of years, so why would they stop now? But it’s important to understand that they are changing. I’ve traveled to China to perform public speaking lectures and have witnessed public campaigning there against related issues such as shark fin soup, and using bear’s gall bladders in traditional medicine. There’s no reason to believe that attitudes and beliefs, even very old and engrained ones, are not capable of changing – and changing quickly.’
In the same vein, President Obama extended an invitation to all African heads of state in good standing with the US and the African Union to a US/Africa Leaders Summit this week. While the agenda is primarily focused on trade, investment and infrastructure, it is understood that the issue of wildlife trafficking cannot be ignored. ‘What must change is the willingness of these leaders to make this a topic of discussion, especially with the Chinese government,’ Bergin says. ‘Africa wants to do business with China and that’s fine. But they need to make a noise and say that what’s happening is a problem when outsiders are poaching their wildlife.’

AWF photo 1 by Billy Dodson
©AWF/Billy Dodson

Education and awareness seems to be the key to winning the hearts and minds of those likely to purchase ivory. For now it seems to be garnering some success. But is that good enough? Are there any alternative methods we’re overlooking? And if not, which of the two contested strategies works best: a limited, regulated trade, or more prosecutions, a complete ban and the subsequent destruction of contraband stockpiles? Is there some sort of compromise US lawmakers and opposing conservationists can agree on? It seems I’m now left with more questions than answers.
As an American who loves Africa’s wildlife, I too am sickened by the unnecessary killings. I only hope that whichever direction my country goes, it will help the cause rather than hurt it. Meanwhile, on the other side of my world, what is left of Africa’s elephants resume their march toward a perilous future. I suppose the only certainty that can be drawn from this impasse is that, if we allow any decrease in elephant conservation initiatives, the outlook for these magnificent animals will be increasingly dire. And much like the temporary billboard of an elephant displayed in Times Square, one thing the real ones are running out of is

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  • Paul oliver

    1989 saw a Worldwide ban on the ivory trade. It worked. The value dropped. The trade cannot be controlled, every angle has been tried before so end the trade, fight the corruption and educate the demanding hordes! Don’t wait until more sub-populations crash. Unfortunately corruption is for ever, elephants may not be if we carry on with satisfying the demand.

  • Penny Owens

    Surely someone is clever enough somewhere to make a synthetic ivory! The trade needs to be stopped – the hunters and receivers both need to be educated – persistently and graphically.

    • Leigh Hunt

      I have been having an extensive exchange on a related subject (Artificial Rhino Horn – ARH) with conservationists – but without success]. There are already artificial (plastic) substitutes for ivory – e.g. Pool/Snooker balls and piano keys are no longer made from ivory. There are even synthetic rhino horn substitutes for the powder used medicinally but elephant ivory looks harder to fake than rhino horn when used for carvings. Rhino horn is Keratin (the same stuff that constitutes nails and hair). ARH is Keratin sourced sustainably – e.g. from horses – pressed/moulded into the structures that you see in real horns.
      I’m a professional engineer who spent several years in the supply chain management business and, in proposing ARH, I argued that it could achieve several beneficial outcomes – depending on the strategy – essentially introducing ARH into the supply/poaching end of the chair would start to remove the need for poaches to risk injury and arrest (or worse) to kill rhino while introducing ARH into the retail end (China/Thailand, etc.) would generate significant revenue to be fed into the anti-poaching effort. If the extra supply drove down the price then it would also make it less attractive to poach. If the consumption of ARH became significant and the anti-poaching efforts were more successful (partly from the increased funding and fewer active poachers) then rumour about ARH in the retail market might be leaked (social media?) which might disrupt the trade further – who could be trusted to supply the real thing? ARH should easily fool the simple tests carried out at the supply end and anything more accurate would likely involve DNA testing – not something that’s readily available.
      Unfortunately, the conservationist that I discussed ARH with reinforced the status quo – that the only approach is to pressure governments to outlaw the trade and introduce stiff penalties – right, like this has worked with the narcotics trade.
      My view is that a more radical approach is demanded now while there are still enough rhinos to recover.
      I’m not suggesting that ARH is the panacea but it could be one of the weapons available to disrupt this abysmal practice. Unfortunately, I have been unable to change any minds so ARH remains on the back-burner for now. I trust the rhinos will understand and hang on a bit longer.

      • Jessica

        Have you thought about communicating with Richard Branson’s organization about your ideas? He seems like he could be open to radical ideas.

        • Leigh Hunt

          There are so many organisations but I’m always willing to give another a try.
          #1 problem I’ve experienced is ‘credibility’ when cold calling. Do you have an access point in Richard Branson’s organisation?

  • Gordon Clay

    has anyone considered flooding the market with all seized stocks of ivory,at one go? this would surely cause a price drop making poaching unprofitable.

    • eshoop

      Boycotting ivory (reducing demand) helps to lower the price of ivory, which could make poaching less attractive as a career option. However, destroying ivory reduces the world supply, which drives the price UP. With the current price on par with gold, poaching is a rather lucrative business.

      The best course is to sell ivory (which will put downward pressure on price) and use the funds raised to provide sophisticated protective measures.

      After a quarter century of destroying tons and tons of ivory, and the elephant steadily headed for extinction (which the black marketeers would benefit from, as their holdings will increase many fold in value), we can see that a change of direction is necessary, if we are to save the elephants.

  • James

    This is a great article. I never thought that burning ivory would cause an increase in price. If demand is still high, that’s not good for elephants. More discussion with ivory dealers needs to be facilitated.

  • James Kydd

    Dr Stiles says: ‘The message of zero tolerance is not sent to poachers or traffickers, it is sent to the NGOs who sponsor it, and to the public of mainly Western countries who contribute money to those NGOs.’ He somehow seems to have forgotten the consumers… by far the most influential link in this chain. This message is not meant for the poachers (most of whom will never hear about this) so much as the consumers. Many end consumers (as ridiculous as this may sound to us) know nothing about where their ivory (and rhino horn) come from.. many believe it is removed painlessly from farmed animals and allowed to regrow. This is very much about creating awareness globally, but especially in the East.

    • James

      I agree to an extent. Education should continue to tip the scale of demand. That will lower market prices. I think Stiles and Bergin both agree in that respect. But I recall a BBC interview with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). They gave a statistic that something like 93% of the Chinese polled stated they wouldn’t purchase ivory and another high percentage who bought ivory before, wouldn’t buy it again, having learned what happens to the elephants. Given that percentage, I’m inclined to believe ivory is primarily purchased by the wealthy (e.g. those in government, high powered business executives, religious clergy in the Philippines, etc.). The problem is they are the type of consumers who don’t care about the means in which the ivory is brought to market. They ignore public awareness campaigns and they’ll pay any price to procure it, which keeps the dealers in business. I’m not sure if that’s the same with rhino horn because that’s being used for folk remedy, whilst ivory is more of a statement of wealth. What makes it more problematic is the fact that they will pay a lot of money to poor African people who will poach the elephants. If they’re caught, it really doesn’t solve the problem because the end buyer is nowhere near the scene of the crime.

  • What a great article. I would love to see all the interested parties worldwide putting their research and their heads together to produce scientific data that would clearly show the best way forward. The elephants must be protected at all costs. For now, aggressive education to reduce consumer demand seems the best way to go.

  • Jabungu

    Very interesting article. As an African working in tourism industry and very active in wildlife conservation issues. I feel the need to add my voice to this very important debate. The article highlighted the market demand from Asia and international players especially NGOs from rich western countries. The African voice is somewhere lost in poverty and or just willing to collaborate with whoever comes with money. This is not true at all. Now lets look at it this way, what’s the cost of keeping the elephants and other wildlife free with limited resource in a poor village which only depend on small acres of maize that they have wait for in several months only to be destroyed in one night by elephants in few minutes? Can they understand conservation of elephant? When wildlife rangers who depend on tourism have got no salaries due to tourist travel advisory either for (political reasons or colonialistic-diplomatic hangover) will they resist the temptations to use what they have meaning wildlife they protect to survive. And will the elephants ever survive if the powerful voices which dictates the direction and policies are those of uninformed, over romantised foreign ideals which do more to harm realistic local conservation initiatives?
    As much as its criminal for poachers and traders and corrupt custom and other government officials in Africa the other challenge facing elephants is space as parks are not enough. In East Africa in most cases some of these NGOs have become institutionaly corrupt and a deservice for what they claim to work for. Yes sometimes all the symbolic burning and advert only communicate to donors than players that can change the crisis. For those who have seen live free elephants and understand their plights we must refuse to see then through the narrow scope of only trade on ivory. but rather as live that need cherishing for eternity. To achieve this we all must persue ways that guarantee their survival not only if they are traded on but as a measure of also how heathy a human society can be.

  • Roy Norman

    In my view to increase supply would increase demand as the reduced price would make ivory available to the less rich. A two pronged approach in increased efforts to stop or curtail poaching -essential but not easy-and an educational drive to the rich purchasers of ivory to change attitudes making the ownership of ivory contemptible and not admirable must also be strengthened-also not an easy task but also essential

  • Ben Kinberg

    Thank you for that incisive look at an
    important debate. By the end of the article, I too was asking similar questions
    about which approach will ultimately be the most effective in limiting the genocidal consumerism at the expense of these endangered lives. I think we’ve gotten about as far as
    we’re going to get based on opinion alone and at some point we’ll have to
    figure out a way to establish some hard facts. “Big data” is such a
    buzz word today and I think the right approach is ultimately going to be
    determined by the statistical analysis of causal factors and results-oriented
    number crunching. That said, I had no question, though, about what this article
    did achieve: It places the chilling discussion before our eyes so that we now
    have no excuse but to begin to act in big and small ways.

  • Wendy Clayton

    As I’m sure we all know, those poaching are getting relatively little
    compared to the actual purchase price of the buyer who is usually from
    China/Asia. They that have so much disposable income, they don’t care.
    They never have cared, about snow leopards, whales and dolphin,
    gorillas, rhino, tigers, leopard, primates large and small – they will
    drive most jungle animals into extinction, so many species are already
    headed that way. The illegal pet trade is also a disgusting reality in
    Asia. Recently, there was a huge owl for sale in a Thailand market,
    it’s illegal there but so easy to do because no one else cares, the
    police will take a small pay off, if they even notice or know it’s
    illegal. They actually create fake rhino horns in Laos in small remote
    local produce markets that look real with what appears to be blood on
    the base. I was shocked and asked the girl selling who spoke no English
    if it was real, she said YES but after really looking at it I realized
    it was not. They all know Rhino horn is valuable and want to cash in. I think they were asking $50 USD for this fake horn.

    opinion is to not sell the ivory – the market is so huge in China now,
    the stock pile will quickly disappear and poaching will continue. I
    agree in education but the Chinese do not care about animals, they are
    driving the market right now, they as a people are selfish and hardened
    to sympathy for humans let alone animals.

  • eshoop

    Reducing the demand for ivory is a good thing; it tends to bring down the price, so poaching is not so lucrative. Unfortunately, this effort is undone when we destroy ivory, which reduces supply and drives prices up. The logical solution is to beef up protection, sell the confiscated ivory to fund protection, prisons for poachers, and increase the ability to confiscate ivory. This relentless positive cycle can save elephants from extinction, but we must change course, or they are doomed.