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.

More:

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.

Antithesis of Desire

There were two major seizures of illegal elephant tusks Kenya’s Mombasa airport this month. The largest – 3 tonnes worth an estimated $700,000 – was being exported as large bags of peanuts. The other, seized earlier this month, was composed of tusks that had been cut up into smaller pieces and covered in fish remains to pass as fish exports. The illegal animal parts trade, much like drug smuggling, is ever inventive when it comes to moving product.

Large-scale ivory shipments originating from Africa have almost exclusively been seized in containers at major ports in Asia, where there is an established customs inspection system. Shipments mainly originate from Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and West Africa. Graphic: Riccardo Pravettoni, GRID-Arendal via whyfiles.org

Large-scale ivory shipments originating from Africa have almost exclusively been seized in containers at major ports in Asia, where there is an established customs inspection system. Shipments mainly originate from Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and West Africa.
Graphic: Riccardo Pravettoni, GRID-Arendal via whyfiles.org

A new technique for identifying illegal elephant tusk products – ivory – has been under discussion. Carbon dating of living animals, based on radioactive fallout from atomic testing during the mid-20th century, could be used to determine whether ivory specimens are legal – i.e. were gathered during the still-legal era which overlapped with atomic testing – or are from a more recent culling and thus illegal.

A Kenyan official is quoted in this Washington Post article as saying that “unless wildlife poaching is declared ‘an economic crime’ with heavy penalties, the problem is likely to persist in Kenya and elsewhere in the region where poachers do not face serious consequences if they are caught.” This is an issue for national and international governmental regulation.

But with this, as with other illegal animal part markets from rhino horn to snakeskin, the real challenge is getting at the end consumer. The market for ivory had dropped dramatically during the 1990s, when the end consumers in North America and Europe had decided owning ivory was no longer acceptable. The market has risen again in Asia with newfound economic purchasing power.

There is also a very interesting piece from National Geographic linking the carving of religious sculptures, across all religions, in Asia with the illegal ivory trade. Reporter Bryan Christy suggests that if a moral and ethical argument could be made from within the various religions, that might go some way toward stemming the trade.

The elimination of a species, not to mention the blood trade in their parts, needs to come to be seen as the antithesis of what makes a desirable object.

Elephant Eye Artist: Kristan Benson

Elephant Eye
Artist: Kristan Benson