Illegal ivory trade is booming

How bad is the illegal ivory trade? Getting a handle on exact numbers is difficult because no one knows how many shipments go uncaught or unreported. But a new study suggests that this unsavory business is thriving: Illegal activity has more than doubled in just four years.

The authors drew on data from the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), which monitors ivory seizures around the world. People generally consider these numbers unreliable because they don’t account for the fact that rates of seizure and reporting differ among countries. But the team argues that the records “hold some information about the illegal trade, so rather than ignoring the data altogether, we attempt to identify the sources of bias and account for them”.

For example, the seizure rate — the percentage of illegal ivory activity that is actually caught — will depend on the effectiveness of a country’s law enforcement. And the reporting rate — the percentage of seizures reported to ETIS — will depend on whether the country considers these reports important or has an automated reporting system, among other factors.

Using information about various countries’ governance and reporting efforts, the team adjusted 11,000 ETIS records from 1996-2011 for sources of bias. This analysis “dramatically changed the impression given by the seizures data alone,” they write in PLOS ONE. For example, Cameroon initially appeared to have few small raw ivory seizures compared to the United States. But since the seizure and reporting rates in Cameroon are also likely to be low, the researchers estimate that Cameroon’s activity in fact exceeded the U.S.’ starting in the late 1990s.

Overall, illegal ivory activity roughly tripled from 1998 to 2011 and more than doubled from 2007 to 2011, the authors report. Much of this increase is due to high demand for ivory products in China and Thailand. Large shipments come out of Cameroon, Gabon, Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and often pass through Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. The results are “clear evidence of an alarming, rapid increase in illegal ivory trade activity,” the team concludes. Roberta Kwok | 24 October 2013

Source: Underwood, F.M., R.W. Burn, and T. Milliken. 2013. Dissecting the illegal ivory trade: An analysis of ivory seizures data. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0076539.

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