More ivory to crush

Can destroying ivory stockpiles really slow elephant slaughter?

Without action, African elephants could be extinct in a decade.
Christi Turner

Samwel Tokore has seen countless elephant carcasses in his time as wildlife operations officer for the Kenya Wildlife Service. But he is still disturbed by what he calls the slaughter and torture of these creatures by poachers.


“They just take the tusks,” Tokore says. “They have no interest in the meat, in the whole animal. They just take a very small fraction of that threeton, four-ton animal.”

And even after more than 30 years of international campaigning against the ivory trade and the slaughter behind it, these “fractions” of African elephants still slip out of the 37 countries where they live, feeding the global demand for ivory, tusk by tusk. The Center for Conservation Biology, based at the University of Washington, estimates that as many as 50,000 elephants are being killed annually, with only about 400,000 remaining in the wild. The Environmental Investigation Agency says 2013 may have been the most destructive year for African elephants on record. Left unchecked, poaching could claim all of Africa’s remaining elephants in as few as 10 years.

Recently, the destruction has prompted a surge in the international outcry against the illegal ivory trade. In Botswana, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature convened officials to a three-day African Elephant Summit beginning Dec. 2, with the goal of securing a high-level commitment to halt the illegal ivory trade, all the way from source to consumer. In June, the Philippines — a consumer of ivory — destroyed its five-ton ivory stockpile, ensuring that the confiscated tusks would never make their way to a jewelry shop.

And last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulverized its stockpile of nearly six tons of ivory, housed at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City. The ivory represented potentially many thousands of African elephants, but an industrial rock crusher turned the tusks and carved trinkets to dust and rubble, sending a clear message from the world’s second-largest consumer of ivory that enough is enough.

“We’ve seen that we are now getting supporters in the fight against poaching,” Tokore says, expressing his hope that this recent upwelling will help bring global demand for ivory back down.

But will it?

Shruti Suresh, wildlife campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency in London, says the destruction of ivory stockpiles does indeed help global efforts to stem the massacre of African elephants.

“Once governments have recognized that, look, we need to end demand for ivory — that this is a crisis for African elephants — then you need to stop putting a price tag on ivory,” Suresh says. “The next step is to get rid of it.”

According to the Center for Conservation Biology, between 1979 and 1987 the legal global ivory trade flourished and the African elephant population plummeted from 1.3 million to 600,000 individuals left in the wild. In 1989, African elephants were listed as an Appendix 1 species in the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, effectively banning the ivory trade. Poachers have since been targeted on all levels, confiscated ivory has amassed in many of the 175 signatory countries to the CITES convention, and elephant populations have shown signs of recovery.

But under pressure in 1999, CITES authorized limited sales of ivory stockpiles from select African countries — Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe — presumably to quench the demand from the world’s second-largest consumer of ivory at the time: Japan (which has since been overtaken by the U.S.). In 2008, CITES allowed for yet another legal sale of stockpiled ivory to Japan, as well as nearly 62 tons (62,000 kilograms) to China, the longstanding top global consumer of ivory. The Chinese government purchased the ivory at $157 per kilo, then turned around and sold it to Chinese traders and companies at almost $3,000 per kilo — a profit of more than $176 million.

“Meeting the demand can’t happen, especially not in China,” Suresh says. “Having these stockpiles doesn’t really do anyone a favor. It’s just fueling the trade.”

Under new international legislation, CITES signatories will be required to report the size of their stockpiles. This should be an easy task for countries like the U.S. and Philippines — zero. Kenya has repeatedly burned its own ivory stockpiles (as have a number of other African countries) and the Kenyan Parliament is currently deliberating a bill that would impose fines as high as $200,000 and jail sentences of up to 20 years for elephant poachers. Tokore said that a Kenya Wildlife Service community outreach program that targets and “converts” elephant poachers into elephant advocates is bearing fruit.

“We’ve caught every exit of ivory at our exit points at the ports this year,” Tokore says, in large part from their relationships with converted poachers. “For the most part, we’ve not experienced any contraband of ivory exiting. Anything that has gone through our ports has been intercepted — it’s been very encouraging.”

Meanwhile, neighboring Tanzania announced in late November that it would like to sell its own ivory stockpile, estimated at nearly 100 tons. Suresh said that despite the U.S. ivory crush and other high-profile moves to abolish the illegal trade, a so-called “legal permitting system” in China continues to seduce countries like Tanzania, consistently ranked about the 15th poorest nation in the world by gross domestic product, into an ivory sale — and an assumption that the sale will not further fuel global demand. 

China’s “legal” ivory is meant to consist either of ivory sourced before the 1989 CITES ban took effect, or ivory from the 2008 purchase. But undercover investigations by EIA agents in China have revealed otherwise.

“We’ve found that the laws favor and encourage the utilization of wildlife products,” Suresh says. “All it takes for you to buy legal ivory is to just make sure that it comes with a piece of paper, and there’s no way you can trace whether that permit came with that particular ivory bangle or ivory chopsticks.”

Ultimately, countless more tons of confiscated ivory remain to be destroyed, including in China, where EIA and other international agencies can only guess at the vast tons of ivory in the country’s possession. And from the U.S. to Kenya to London, advocates and policy makers are calling for yet stricter international policies and stronger national and local enforcement.

“The recognition that the problem is big, that the problem is serious organized crime, is happening,” Suresh says. “But in terms of what’s happening on the ground, in terms of laws, and implementing those laws — it hasn’t got up to the fact that this is serious organized crime, and should be tackled as such.”