Can there ever be a legal ivory trade?

The international trade in elephant ivory has doubled since 2007. Since 1998, it’s tripled. That’s despite the fact that, in 1989, trading ivory became illegal. There are many, many problems with the trade in ivory, but one of them comes down to basic economics: there is a mismatch between the demand for ivory and the quantity of tusks available.

The high prices for ivory – currently some $3,000 per kilogram – mean that sellers’ drive to maintain large inventories is quite high. It has even been hypothesized that some folks are acting as speculators, building up large stockpiles of illegal ivory, expecting the price to go even higher once the animals become extinct. These are people who have no interest in securing a sustainable future for ivory; they envision a hefty payday once the wild source for ivory disappears. Once their stockpiles are gone, they can turn their attention to something else. All of this means that the poachers who are the foundation for the ivory trade are killing off elephants faster than those animals can produce offspring. Eventually the supply will dry up because African elephants will be extinct, at least in the wild.

One possible solution to this, some have argued, is to institute a tightly controlled legalized trade in ivory. In a recent issue of Conservation Biology, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) researcher Elizabeth L. Bennett explored the feasibility of such a plan, eventually concluding that opening up the markets to legalized ivory would not actually help. It all comes down to corruption.

Here’s why:

The challenge in creating a sustainable mechanism for ivory sales is that elephants, having the longest gestation period of any animal, take a long time to produce their offspring. The motivation would therefore be quite high for unethical purveyors of ivory to launder illegally obtained materials into a legal trade. Why wait for a wild elephant to age out of the breeding stock if poached tusks could be slipped into a legal trade route? If local people could benefit from the legal trade of ivory, then it could at least be technically feasible to disincentivize poaching. But each tusk would need a strictly controlled chain of custody. This, too, is at least feasible in theory, given modern genetic methods, which could be used to identify the source of individual tusks.

Most importantly, a legal trade route must be ethically managed, from source to consumer, which Bennett argues requires transparency and good governance. “Such management systems,” she writes, “must be robust to counter the significant incentives to undermine controls, given the high current prices of ivory and the high demand for such products in the expanding markets in East Asia.” Therein lies a significant problem, given the rampant corruption among government officials tasked with upholding wildlife-related legislation.

There are as many (or more) forms of corruption as there are entry points into the market. Officials can demand bribes to gain political influence or can accept bribes offered to them in exchange for their overlooking of illegal activities. They can be paid to ignore poaching or trafficking, or can offer only weak punishments when offenders are caught – such as this police officer in South Africa who was caught with illegal rhino horns. His bail was set at a paltry R500, or about $50 USD. Officials can also be bribed or paid off to alter or forge paperwork to make an illegal item seem legal, or to falsify certification. According to earlier WCS research, some $18,000 to $30,000 each day is given to border officials at just three smuggling points on the Vietnam-China border.

The toll that governmental corruption takes on wildlife becomes even more obvious when considering the numbers. Of the eight countries identified by CITES as the worst offenders for ivory trafficking, six of them are among the most corrupt countries in the world, according to one assessment of 177 nations. “Of the 12 countries in Africa estimated to have elephant populations of 15,000 animals or more,” explains Bennett, “8 are among the bottom 40% of the world’s most corrupt countries and 3 are among the bottom 11%.” Given that elephants occur in 37 nations in sub-Saharan Africa, even if some nations do manage to curb corruption and maintain an effective legal trade, illegal tusks would inevitably enter the trade from other countries that could not.

“Once illegal ivory has entered the legal trade, it is difficult or impossible for enforcement officers to know what is legal or illegal,” Bennett writes. Modern DNA-testing techniques introduce an inefficient time lag into the process, making them unlikely to become useful in the field. And “even without such ambiguities, enforcement of illegal wildlife trade is challenging because, around the world, wildlife agencies are given low priority and are severely understaffed, undertrained, and underresourced.”

Corruption usually occurs because wildlife officials tend to be quite poorly compensated for their efforts. Rather than serving as an effective tool for regulation, inspection points along the entire route from harvest to final sale are instead an effective tool for bribery. Adding more wildlife officials to monitor the proposed legal trade would only introduce even more opportunities for bribery and corruption.

Given this, it is impossible to coordinate an effective, sustainable, legalized trade in elephant horn, at least now. As long as there remains a demand from consumers, a legal trade embedded within a corrupt system would only facilitate an illegal trade as well. The route to African elephant conservation is not clear, but at least one thing is: a legalized ivory market won’t help. Adequately addressing corruption would require a change in international values and priorities that would take decades to achieve, if could be achieved at all. And consumer demand would have to decrease by several orders of magnitude. The dwindling number of wild African elephants might simply not have the time to wait. – Jason G. Goldman | 21 January 2015

Source: Bennett E.L. (2015). Legal Ivory Trade in a Corrupt World and its Impact on African Elephant Populations, Conservation Biology, DOI:

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