Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Ivory: a burning issue

9 April, 2015 - 14:25 -- John Burton
Mammoth tusks at London dock

I have been involved in a flurry of tweets concerning the burning of confiscated ivory. 

The general opinion among a wide range of conservationists and animal protectionists is that illegal ivory when confiscated should be burned. This, they argue will discourage poachers. Quite why it will discourage poachers is never explained, and to me it is counter-intuitive. 

For thousands of years, ivory has been traded as a commodity and until this issue is addressed efforts to stop the destruction of elephants for ivory may well be futile. Throughout much of the northern hemisphere this trade started with mammoth ivory, Palaeolithic carvings are well known, and even after mammoths became extinct the trade in their ivory continued.

Illustrations of the London Ivory Exchange in the 1890s show large amounts of mammoth tusks mixed with the ivory from Africa. By the end of the nineteenth century “white gold” (ivory) had replaced the trade in “black gold” (slaves) in much of Africa.

This trade continued until well into the 20th century, and the level of exports was probably at a more or less sustainable level. In fact it has been calculated that the volume of ivory exported from Africa could have been sustained from ivory collected from natural deaths of elephants – hence the quest for the fabled ‘elephant graveyards’. 

Two events in the second half of the 20th century seem to have spurred on the rate of elephant poaching for ivory. The first was decolonisation by European powers in the 1960s, which soon led to a rapid escalation of arms throughout the region. In fact Iain Douglas Hamilton was able to show a direct correlation between the numbers of machine guns exported to African nations and the rise in ivory exports.

A second factor was the expulsion of a large Asian community from Uganda by Idi Amin. Before quitting Uganda wealthy Asian families put their cash into ivory and then exported it. By the end of the 1970s the trade was escalating.

While I was working for TRAFFIC (wildlife trade monitoring) in the 1980s, I developed a technique for tracing the trade in ivory using international customs statistics. I was able to demonstrate the volume of the illegal trade, and published this data in New Scientist.  From then onwards, the data became more readily available, and CITES controls became stricter and stricter. When a complete ban on the trade in ivory came into force in 1990 this customs data was no longer available.

When the ban was introduced there were already huge quantities of perfectly legal ivory in circulation, and it is widely believed that Chinese dealers in particular had created stockpiles in case bans were introduced.

Another confusing factor is that ivory does not just come from elephants. In addition to the mammoth ivory mentioned earlier, there is also ivory from hippopotamus, walrus, whales, boar, pigs and other mammalian teeth. All perfectly easy to identify using modern techniques, but nonetheless confusing the overall situation.

And there are also other issues, since historically ivory was used for carving some of the most beautiful works of art known. It is also important culturally and used well into the 20th century for creating works of art significant to the peoples of Africa.

As enforcement of ivory bans took hold during the 1990s, more and more illegal ivory was being seized by law enforcement agencies. And the problem was, what to do with it? There were (and still are) limited options, basically three: sell the ivory and use the funds to support law enforcement,  destroy it or stockpile it.

There is little doubt that selling confiscated ivory will not help the remaining elephants. Not only would it help fuel the market, it would almost certainly lead to widespread corruption, and also increase the poaching. The second option of burning ivory, while appealing to the sense of drama, and creating great photo opportunities for politicians, is not based on any evidence that it will reduce poaching. Logically, since ivory has always been traded as a commodity like amber, gold, emeralds, precious spices etc, its value (and demand) is directly related to supply.

If the supply is reduced by destroying large quantities, then the remaining supply will increase in value, and therefore the risk of poaching will increase. Which is precisely what has happened over the past four decades. 

The third option, is in my view the only one that will help elephants. A secure stock-pile of ivory from legal culls (which do exist), found ivory (which is not inconsiderable) and confiscated ivory (which is large) might well prove a deterrent.

Confiscated ivory could form part of an international holding, while legal ivory would remain in the custody of the country depositing it. After a few years of stockpiling, a controlled legal supply could be sufficient to meet the demands of the market, the price would fall and the illicit trade would be replaced by a legal trade where supply and demand were in balance.

Commodity markets have been manipulated in this way in the past: both the oil and diamond markets are good examples, and there is no reason why the ivory market could not be controlled in same way. This analysis may prove to be wrong, but at least it is worth trying.

Burning ivory clearly does not help elephants at all, in fact I would go as far as to say that it is a one-way route to the extinction of elephants. At least stockpiling leave options open.

If after five or 10 years of stockpiling there is no evidence to support this approach, it is still possible to destroy it. But we can never bring back all the ivory that has been destroyed, and the works of art and objects of ethnographic that have been lost for ever.


Submitted by Dr Sudipto Chat... on

may i request you for the New Scientist Article. Would like to know more about WLT's initiative in addressing the illegal ivory trade.

Agreed 100% on the burning issue - all it does is raise a few people's profiles as 'saviours of elephants' to get more money themselves, especially here in Kenya. Please look at our leasing of land efforts in the Mara conservancies - it's truly the only way forward for wildlife but no one wants to put their money into it.

Good point. I would suggest that the destruction of ivory is counter-productive, grandstanding. Even with the difficulties of corruption, secure stockpiling to avoid option foreclosure would seem more logical. The London Declaration while supporting the destruction of ivory stockpiles also accepted that Tanzania and Botswana would put their stocks "out of reach" - conflicting messages? Well protected and managed, legal ivory supplies could play a significant role in rural community socio-economic development - perhaps the most important and under-funded, long term wildlife conservation strategy. (

Submitted by John on

Thanks for the feedback. What is really frustrating is that those who support burning never provide any evidence that it actually benefits elephant populations. It is surely time that it was recognised for what it is: a huge publicity stunt for certain conservation groups, that has no demonstrable benefit at all, but may actually be the cause of increased poaching.

Submitted by Cristina Parker on

i saw a tweet that said that Tanzania was intending to destroy its Ivory stockpile and that Mark Simmonds, then at Foreign Office persuaded them not to do so and that officials from UK went to advise them how to preserve the stocks they have. Shortly afterwards Mark Simmonds resigned, citing family reasons

Submitted by John on

any further information on this would be very welcome indeed. I believe it is very important to open this up to proper discussion. Any one know how to contact mark Simmonds?

Submitted by John on

WLT are now in final stages of planning a debate on the issue of burning ivory, to be hosted by Chris Packham; watch the website or email us to be kept informed of dates, place times etc.

Submitted by John on

Just noticed that further on in the New Scientist reproduced, there is a letter relating to newts which referred to an article I wrote on newts -- and about which I had completely forgotten -- a trip down memory lane!

Submitted by Beville May on

This is a fascinating idea, and a super informative post. My concern is that I thought when ivory was banned in the late 1980's, ivory was stockpiled, and then released on the market, but that this release then triggered an upsurge in poaching which had abated somewhat. Unfortunately, I can't recall my source for this information so all input, feedback, and necessary corrections are welcome.

Submitted by Beville May on

I found my source. It is a Nat Geo article which I quote here: "Market Forces
The international community banned the ivory trade in 1989, and for a while, it worked, stemming the drastic decline of the elephant population, which had dropped from 1.3 million to around 600,000 over the prior decade. But since 2007, large-scale poaching has resumed, and the elephant population has fallen as low as 419,000.

The reason? “Legal” ivory found a way back onto the global market. African countries were granted special permission to auction stockpiles of seized tusks worth millions of dollars." from Who Buys Ivory, You'd Be Surprised.

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