Saving threatened habitats worldwide

We have to find an economic solution to the illegal wildlife trade

15 November, 2013 - 14:00 -- John Burton

Conservationists have battled with the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife derivatives for around 50 years, and the situation is for most species at its worst ever.

In October Earthwatch held a debate about the trade in horn and ivory, and it is clear from accounts of the debate that many conservationists are opposed to any plan to introduce a carefully regulated trade in horn and ivory. My sense is that some of this opposition is due to the fact that there is not yet a workable alternative to the existing ban.

So, who exactly are the right people to work out an alternative to a ban? Quite possibly, conservationists are not the best people. Surely economists and commodity traders have more relevant experience than conservationists? 

The fact is: ivory is traded as a commodity. While it has always had a value, in the past its value was related to its use, but this changed dramatically in 1972, when Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the Asians (mostly Gujaratis) out of Uganda, and ivory was used to transfer currency out of the country.

Today ivory is still stockpiled in China and other countries, as is rhino horn. Not all of either of these commodities ends up being manufactured, but a large (unknown) proportion is simply stockpiled. This means that for those holding the stockpiles there is an incentive to encourage further depletion of the remaining wild stocks, because it increases the value of the stocks they hold. Meanwhile, destroying the seized illegal supplies also increases the value of the stockpiles, and increases the value of further illegal supplies. 

The issue is further confused by the fact that there is, and always will be very large quantities of perfectly legal ivory in circulation, and this too will help maintain the value of ivory.  

Some extremists argue for a total ban on the trade in all forms of ivory, but to me that is quite unrealistic. In addition to extremely large quantities of mammoth ivory (relatively easily distinguished from modern elephants) there are also large quantities of walrus, hippo and sperm whale ivory, some of which comes from natural mortality (as did a proportion of elephant ivory in the past). And there is all the existing carved ivory – ranging from the magnificent altar pieces in the V&A Museum, to more commonplace chess sets. It would be both impractical and impossible to ban these.

There is no evidence that bans can ever be enforced, and in nearly every case bans simply increase the value of the banned substance – if there is a demand for it. Drugs are a prime example, despite billions of pounds and dollars being spent on enforcement.

Therefore a solution that works as an economic model has to be found. Cartels and monopolies spring to mind, but however I look at the problem, I still believe that commodity traders are more likely to have the answer than conservationists.

I raised this question with supporters of WLT who happen also to be commodity traders. Their suggestion was that arms traders, or diamond traders might have an even better insight! This seems an interesting route to investigate. (Many years ago, Kenyan elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton established a strong correlation between the rise in elephant poaching in Africa, and the increase in the availability of weapons capable of killing elephants in the post-colonial era.) Diamonds are also used as currency, smuggled, traded illegally and stockpiled just like ivory.

After  50 years of observation, I remain convinced that bans do not and will not work. The illegal trade in ivory and horn is having a devastating effect on the world’s dwindling populations of elephant and rhino, and now is the time to look to people outside the conservation sector to find a solution to this increasingly dire problem.

PS Following the success of World Land Trust (WLT)'s own debate Controversial Conservation last month, we are considering topics for future debates. I would be very interested to hear from anyone who would like to see any hotly contested conservation issues debated in public - including alternatives to the current wildlife trade ban.


Submitted by Dominic Belfield on

Well here's my suggestion for a future debate - why is it considered taboo to suggest that humans should take active steps to limit both their numbers (overall population) and their demands on the ecosystems which make up the life support capacities of this planet? Doesn't our current overpopulation represent a form of zoological failure?

Submitted by john on

Certainly we will add this to the list. But humans do take active steps already by contraception and birth control. Of course the Pope (however liberal he may be considered) has not yet reversed the position of the Catholic Church over contraception. And US foreign Aid policy does not help the problem. Perhaps the question should be around the morality and desirability of the sorts of solutions promoted in China? But certainly a critical issue for wildlife.

Submitted by Caspar Verwer on

Thank you for this interesting post. Similar effects are occurring in the gold trade. Most of the mined gold seems to be just stockpiled in the cellars of banks without anybody using it. It remains lucrative and profitable to destroy and pollute entire river systems and forests for gold mining. Yet, apart from conservationists, gold still has a positive image among most people; people are generally very glad to win a gold medal at the world cup. But that gladness of course is merely due to the cultural meaning of gold. The metal may as well be replaced by a wooden or stone medal and have the exact same emotional effect.

There are many similarities with ivory trade. The material is rare, occurs in biodiversity hotspots, generally where there is weak enforcement, is being extracted with dramatic effects on biodiversity and ecosystems, has been exploited by mankind for ages and ages already, and its exploitation is by no means necessary for human survival. In fact, as you have described, a large portion of the ivory harvests are being collected and stockpiled, just like gold and diamonds. Based purely on its physical characteristics ivory may be replaced by a whole range of other materials. Similarly, some tree species are being commercially exploited and traded globally while other tree species with similar characteristics are not. So it seems to be a market thing; both demand and supply can be created for almost any product, regardless of how useful it is to us.

The rarer rhinos, elephants and other ivory producing animals become, the more profitable the ivory trade will be. Burning large quantities of illegal ivory may at first glance seem to be an effective signal to discourage the ´ivory hunters´, but may indeed also increase the value of the substance, making it even more lucrative to exploit it. In this system, the last bits of oil in the world will be worth large amounts of money and the person shooting the last tiger is likely to become a millionaire.

A Dutch pear farmer once told me that his farm is the most profitable in years with low yields throughout the country, because in those years the price is highest and it saves him harvesting costs. But according to that reasoning, breeding rhinos and elephants for their ivory should form an interesting business case. However, I don’t know if that would work. If it is indeed simply about supply and demand, shouldn’t our question be: how can we reduce the absurdly high prices that are being paid for these substances? Would breeding animals or the artificial production of ivory, gold or any other substance help? Printing elephant tusks with a 3D printer? Hm, I am not convinced yet. On the other hand, lowering the global demand by campaigning against illegal ivory trade has not really paid off yet.

Submitted by john on

Thanks for this comment Caspar. Some interesting and useful insights.

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