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A beginner's guide to ivory trade


Fauna & Flora answer some common questions about the illegal ivory trade and discuss the pros and cons of different approaches to this pressing problem.

Is it illegal to trade ivory?

International trade in elephant ivory is banned.

The ban was introduced in 1975 for Asian elephants and 1989 for African elephants as a result of unsustainable elephant poaching in the 1970s and 80s. The species were placed on Appendix I of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which forbids all international trade in a species and its products.

In recognition that some southern African elephant populations were healthy and well managed, CITES approved two legal sales of ivory. This ivory was sourced from government-owned stockpiles of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, with 50 tons sold to Japan in 1999 and 108 tons to China in 2008.

Apart from these specially-approved sales, the ban on international ivory trade has remained in place.

Ivory stockpile © JABRUSON / Fauna & Flora

Ivory stockpile © JABRUSON / Fauna & Flora

Ivory stockpile.

However, many countries – including the UK, US, Thailand and Japan – have domestic markets where it is legal to buy and sell ivory certified as antique or coming from legal stockpiles.

In the UK, for example, while it is illegal to buy and sell Asian elephant ivory dating after 1975 or African elephant ivory dating after 1990, there are some exemptions for trading in carved antique ivory (pieces carved before 3rd March 1947). Ivory pieces carved after this date but before the international ban came into force are also exempt if accompanied by a government-issued certificate.

Through this market, therefore, certain antique ivory products can be legally bought and sold domestically and can be legally re-exported internationally with relevant CITES permits.

What has been the impact of illegal trade on elephants?

Despite the international trade ban, ivory poaching has more than doubled since 2007.

This has led to a devastating decline in elephants, with IUCN estimating that around 111,000 African elephants – a fifth of the total population – were lost between 2006 and 2015, with the majority illegally killed for ivory.

The latest analysis suggests that poaching rates have decreased slightly since a peak in 2011, but nevertheless remain at unsustainable levels.

Who is buying ivory?

Demand for ivory is greatest in East and Southeast Asia.

A rapid increase in ivory trafficking in the last decade has been linked to rising disposable incomes in this region, combined with increased economic and infrastructure links between Africa and Asia. China has been the largest domestic market for ivory over the last decade, where it symbolises wealth and status and is also considered a strong speculative investment, known as “white gold”.

Male African elephant killed for ivory. © JABRUSON / Fauna & Flora

Male African elephant killed for ivory. © JABRUSON / Fauna & Flora

Poaching has had a devastating effect on elephant populations.

Is an international trade ban the best approach?

Between 1990 and 2007, studies suggest that the ban helped to halt the decline in the overall population of African elephants, which then began to recover. However, elephant poaching for ivory subsequently increased to unprecedented levels. This has led some to question whether an international trade ban is the best approach.

An alternative approach proposed is to establish regulated legal trade, with ivory supplied from natural elephant deaths to satisfy demand and with proceeds from sales contributing much-needed funds to elephant conservation.

Indeed, some argue that trade bans can be detrimental, serving to drive up prices by restricting supply and in turn increasing incentives to poach, thereby handing a monopoly on commerce to the black market and organised criminals with the capacity to overcome enforcement efforts.

However, others think that supply and demand could change in response to legislation and result in higher poaching levels under a legal trade scenario.

This could either be because legal trade ‘legitimises’ ivory demand and boosts consumption to a level that cannot be satisfied sustainably (indeed, a recent study predicts that a sustainable, legitimate yield of ivory would be much too low to satisfy even existing demand), or because legal trade in ivory provides a cover for illegal trafficking, reducing the risk of detection.

Governance and corruption are big challenges for regulation

A controlled legal trade would require robust controls to ensure that ivory from illegally killed elephants are not laundered through the legal market; once this has happened, it is very difficult to differentiate between legal and illegal ivory.

The difficulty is that countries frequently implicated in ivory trafficking also tend to rank high for corruption. Ivory is high value whilst those responsible for enforcing wildlife laws are often under-resourced and poorly paid.

Many argue that reliable global systems for controlled legal ivory trade are not currently feasible due to poor governance, corruption and the involvement of organised crime. Others argue that both legal trade and trade bans equally vulnerable to the impacts of corruption.

A global movement towards closing legal domestic ivory markets

There is an increasing body of evidence suggesting that legal supply is fuelling demand and providing cover for illegal trade. Many conservation organisations, including Fauna & Flora, therefore argue for the closure of domestic markets. This will make the law clearer cut and law enforcement more straightforward, while also making it easier to reduce demand amongst consumers.

African elephant. © Timur Jack-Kadioglu

African elephant. © Timur Jack-Kadioglu

Many organisations, including Fauna & Flora, are calling for domestic ivory markets to be closed.

At the IUCN Conservation Congress in 2016, the majority of its 217 national members, along with a majority of the thousand conservation groups that also attended, voted in favour of a motion calling for the closure of domestic ivory markets. This was followed with the 17th CITES Conference of Parties passing a non-binding resolution to phase out domestic ivory markets found to contribute to illegal trade.

Many countries, including China and the United States, have already taken action to close domestic ivory markets. In July 2016, the US government passed legislation that significantly limits imports, exports and sales of African elephant ivory, providing exemptions for some antiques and musical instruments. France has also committed to enact a ‘nearly complete ban’ while Hong Kong has announced a five-year plan to phase out its domestic ivory trade.

To date, despite Conservative Party manifesto pledges in 2010 and 2015 to ban ivory sales in the UK, the UK has not followed suit.

What is Fauna & Flora doing?

Fauna & Flora has been leading effective, on-the-ground responses to protect threatened species from illegal wildlife trade for more than 15 years. We have voiced our support of the ban on international trade in ivory and urge countries – including the UK – to close their domestic markets for commercial trade in ivory before the 2018 London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade.

However, we recognise that trade bans are not perfect and that closing legal domestic markets for ivory will not stem poaching overnight.

Concerted, collaborative action is needed from all countries, each of which has a role to play in helping to stop elephant poaching. This must include addressing the ongoing challenges of poor governance, corruption and under-resourced institutions responsible for enforcing wildlife regulations. It will also be critical to build capacity and engage with communities to enable locally-led, sustainable conservation action. Last but not least, we need to tighten control in all ivory markets and reduce demand for ivory in consumer countries.

The momentum and political support generated since the 2014 London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade has translated into stronger collective efforts to stem illegal trade in ivory. It is now critical that we maintain this.