13 Oct 2014: Point/Counterpoint

The Case Against a Legal Ivory Trade:
It Will Lead to More Killing of Elephants

By Mary Rice

Proponents of easing the global ban on ivory are ignoring the fact that it was a legal market for ivory that pushed elephants toward extinction only a few decades ago. What’s needed now is not a legal ivory market, but better regulation and enforcement of the existing ban.

There are certain universal truths about any trade. A legal trade in any commodity provides a laundering mechanism for illegal goods. For example, there is a massive trade in black-market tobacco and alcohol, generating millions of dollars for criminals. And with any trade comes the desire to maximize profit and increase demand, which inevitably leads to marketing aimed at stimulating demand and increasing sales.

But ivory cannot be grown in plantations or matured in distilleries, when market
Arno Meintjes/flickr
Elephants in South Africa's Kruger National Park.
forces result in increased demand. It can only come from dead elephants.

Advocating a legal trade in ivory as a way to protect elephants in the wild is based on assumptions of political will, best practices, and strict enforcement in a world devoid of corruption and greed. The reality, of course, is far from this vision.

Regardless of whether you favor a trade in ivory or not, it is worth remembering that only four decades ago there was a thriving legal trade in ivory, which was so out of control that African elephants faced extinction.

Efforts at regulating that trade had failed. And because they had failed, in 1989 the international ban on ivory trading was adopted under the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), providing a respite for many elephant populations and allowing them to recover. The bottom fell out of the ivory market, trade slumped, and — for just under a decade — the ban was upheld in full.

But in 1999, CITES agreed to allow an “experimental’ sale of stockpiled ivory to Japan. That decision resulted in a general sense that the ban was no longer effectively in place. At a 2002 CITES meeting, China blamed the 1999 decision for confusing people and cited the “experimental” sale as the principal cause of
Traders themselves agree that no amount of legal trade can satisfy the current demand for ivory.
the increasing amount of illegal ivory entering its shores.

By 2005, China had decided that it too wanted a piece of the pie and started campaigning for another stockpiled ivory sale in which it would be a recipient. Poaching had begun to increase, along with the number of large-scale seizures of illegal ivory, many of which were destined for China. Against the backdrop of this escalating poaching crisis, CITES agreed another sale in 2008, this time to both China and Japan.

One of the arguments in favor of trade has been that having a regular supply of ivory provides security to the traders, removing the incentive to seek illegal stock. To all intents and purposes, that is what the 2008 sale provided. In fact, the Chinese Government decided to limit the release of its 60-plus tons of ivory to five tons a year until 2016-17. But in March 2013 Chinese delegates to CITES stated that they required 200 tons of ivory a year in order to satisfy the intense demand for ivory products in China.

What is enough? Traders themselves agree that no amount of legal trade can satisfy the current demand for ivory worldwide. And this demand continues to

The Case for a Legal Ivory Trade:
It Could Help Stop the Slaughter

Author John Frederick Walker argues that a partial lifting of the ban on ivory trading would benefit Africa’s elephants by creating a legal trade that would reduce demand for illicit ivory and discourage poaching.
Read More


The assumption that the ivory collected from Africa’s elephant populations through natural mortality and management practices can supply that amount is naïve. Currently, the majority of African countries with elephant populations oppose the trade in ivory. If legal supply is based on supply from a handful of countries that support trade, other populations in countries that oppose trade will continue to be targeted and the illegal market will continue to thrive.

This would occur at a time when elephant populations across Africa are already facing other threats, especially habitat loss and climate change, and it seems almost inevitable that the number of elephants will decrease as a result of these factors.

The 2008 sale was a major tipping point. Despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, China persuaded the international community that it had developed a robust registration and control system for ivory that would ensure that no illegal ivory could enter the legal market. The international community also believed that by flooding the market with cheap ivory there would be no incentive for illegal traders to continue operating. The hope was that this would stop the poaching, which was at crisis point in places such as southern Tanzania.

This could not have been further from the truth. The stockpiled ivory from four countries was sold at auction for an average $160 per kilogram to China and
Just because it is difficult to enforce something does not mean the solution is to legalize it.
Japan. In China, this legal ivory was sold on to registered traders and dealers for anywhere from $450 to $1,500 per kilogram. Once it reached the registered retail outlets, some of it was sold at around the equivalent of $7,000 per kilogram. In 2010, I personally saw a small polished — not carved — tusk in the Chinese government-owned Friendship store in Guangzhou on sale for $35,000. It carried the appropriate documentation stating its weight as 5.2kg. Several other items in the store were also tagged along equivalent pricing lines.

Illegal ivory trade is low-risk/high-profit, and criminals operate with impunity in most cases. The pro-trade lobby may argue that effective enforcement has been tried as a solution and has failed. But this assumes that wildlife and other related laws are being effectively enforced. Clearly, they are not. Yet just because it is difficult to enforce something does not mean the solution is to legalize it, which only serves to effectively legitimize the criminals. For it will be those same criminals who will engage in the legal trade and seek to increase demand.

Parallel legal markets present a massive enforcement challenge. The much-heralded ivory control and regulation system in China has been a monumental failure and has finally been acknowledged as such. There is documented evidence of widespread abuse of the legal trade system in China. The government allocation from the legal supply to registered factory owner is limited, so even government-approved traders violate the system. In 2011, one registered Chinese trader was discovered to be using his official licence to launder illegal ivory through the system.

How do enforcement authorities distinguish between legal and illegal ivory? This is a question that proponents of a legal ivory trade fail to answer. Current
How do enforcement authorities distinguish between legal and illegal ivory?
permitting and regulation systems clearly do not work.

Legal markets also carry a cost. The cost includes administration, processing the registration and control systems, producing the paperwork and permits, and the cost of implementation, enforcement, and prosecution. These costs are factored into the pricing of the product, resulting in higher prices, which are ultimately borne by the consumer.

Bans also come at a cost. But they are more straightforward and unequivocal. If a product is banned, everyone knows that, by definition, if it is on the market it is illegal. The job of the enforcement personnel — police, customs officials, trade regulators, and the judiciary — is immediately simplified.

Sometimes traditions or behaviors we once held dear become unsustainable or detrimental, either to the individual or to the greater good. If we value a future with elephants in the wild, then instead of applying scarce resources to conjuring up unrealistic trading mechanisms to save them, we need to focus efforts and resources on implementing the long-standing commitments to improving protection and enforcement at every level. And perhaps to accept that, in this day and age, the ultimate price of a market in ivory is just too great.

It’s time to translate words into action for enforcement, not for extinction.

point graphic
Read the case for a legal ivory trade


Mary RiceMary Rice is executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an advocacy organization. She has been with EIA since 1996, when she joined as a volunteer. Rice is responsible for directing the long-term strategic management of EIA and leads its elephant campaign.


The Case for Legal Ivory Trade:
It Could Help Stop the Slaughter

By John Frederick Walker

Although most conservationists oppose it, a proposal to allow a partial lifting of the ban on ivory trading would benefit Africa’s elephants. With proper controls and enforcement, a legal trade would choke off demand for illicit ivory and discourage the poaching now decimating the continent’s elephant populations.

Read the Point article


Subscribe to Newsletter

Follow us on Twitter

Like us on Facebook


Amid Elephant Slaughter,
Ivory Trade in U.S. Continues

In the last year, the U.S. government and nonprofits have put a spotlight on the illegal poaching of Africa’s elephants and Asia’s insatiable demand for ivory. But the media coverage has ignored a dirty secret: The U.S. has its own large ivory trade that has not been adequately regulated.

Poaching Pangolins: An Obscure
Creature Faces Uncertain Future

The pangolin does not make headlines the way elephants or rhinos do. But the survival of this uncharismatic, armor-plated animal is being threatened by a gruesome trade in its meat and its scales.

The War on African Poaching:
Is Militarization Fated to Fail?

African countries and private game reserves are engaging in an increasingly sophisticated arms race against poachers, yet the slaughter of elephants and rhinos continues. Some experts argue that the battle must be joined on a far wider front that targets demand in Asia and judicial dysfunction in Africa.

In Galápagos, An Insidious
Threat to Darwin's Finches

The birds that have come to be known as Darwin's finches have long intrigued students of evolution. But now, Elizabeth Kolbert reports, a parasitic fly introduced to the Galápagos Islands is threatening the future of one or more of these iconic finch species.

Michael Pollan on the Links
Between Biodiversity and Health

Author Michael Pollan has often written about people’s relationship to the natural world. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, he talks about researching his latest book and what he learned about the connections between ecology and human health.

As Tigers Near Extinction,
A Last-Ditch Strategy Emerges

In the past century, populations of wild tigers have plummeted from 100,000 to 3,500. Now the World Bank and conservationists have launched an eleventh-hour effort to save this great predator, focusing on reining in the black market for tiger parts and ending the destruction of tiger habitat.

Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.