Tusk Economics

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

The United States government announced this week that it would be underscoring a deeper commitment to banning the traffic in illegal animal parts by publicly destroying six million tons of ivory (yes, six million tons). Much like the public destruction of seized ivory and tusks that took place earlier this year in the Philippines, this kind of display is meant to achieve several goals:

Raising awareness: Public ivory crushing – the sanctioned destruction of a product generally recognized as highly valuable – should get the attention of those who have somehow managed to ignore the ongoing destruction of some of the planet’s most iconic species. Poaching activity has ballooned over the past few years, with an estimated 96 elephants currently being killed – on a daily basis.

Highly prized African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusks. © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

Highly prized African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusks.
© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

Cutting off the income of traffickers and extremist groups: Wildlife trafficking funds large, organized criminal networks. Trafficking has an estimated annual value of $10 billion, and ivory traffickers are known to deal in narcotics and weapons, as well as fund extremist groups.

Sending a message: Many countries may not be willing to make the case to major trading partners such as China that the ivory trade will no longer be tolerated – but the destruction of ivory on this scale is a clear signal of this intent. Over 40% of illegal ivory finds its way to China. While some argue for flooding the market with ivory in order to cheapen its desirability, in the current climate, this would likely only expand the market.

Undermining corruption: Once destroyed, the ivory stocks cannot be filtered out for illicit sale and the laundering of newer, illegal ivory. The 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species outlawed ivory trade and poaching, with the exception of ivory that was collected prior to the convention. Less of a concern in the US than in other countries, old ivory has been filtered out in exchange for new ivory.

Photo: Mark Pain

Photo: Mark Pain

Via executive order, President Obama formed the Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking this summer to support increased efforts to ban wildlife trafficking.

These developments are all positive.

Still, I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that the US State Department has framed the trafficking crackdown as a ‘national security crisis’ as well as a conservation issue.

As this Motherboard article points out, “the new council lacks any former investigators. The US is a major market for the wildlife trade in general, and budget cuts have left Fish and Wildlife with just 216 special agents. (The DEA alone has more than 4,000.) If the US is to make a dent in its own contributions to the trade, it’ll need to step up enforcement at home.”

Male elephants sparring.  Photo by Karpagam Chelliah

Male elephants sparring.
Photo: Karpagam Chelliah

Destroying ivory stocks sends a powerful message – the US and the Philippines are the only countries outside of Africa to have taken this step, and China continues to claim that illegal poaching is Africa’s problem. But I’ll be withholding heartfelt applause until I see what further steps will be taken to undercut this lucrative blood trade.


The Guardian articleUS to destroy ivory stocks in effort to stop illegal elephant poaching by Suzanne Goldenberg

Motherboard articleThe White House Is Getting More Serious About Wildlife Crime by Derek Mead

Bryan Christy blog – National Geographic journalist, well-known for his work on the illegal ivory trade, comments on the strategy of the destruction of ivory stocks.

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