Burning ivory only increases poaching

Some 105 tons of contraband ivory was burned by Kenyan authorities last week in their effort to curb illegal poaching. I find their logic flawed. All the ivory that was destroyed was what had been recovered from poachers or traders who had been caught. The ivory came from elephants already killed. But I don’t see how destroying this ivory will save a single elephant from being targeted by poachers.

BBCKenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has set fire to a huge stockpile of ivory in an effort to show his country’s commitment to saving Africa’s elephants.

More than 100 tonnes of ivory was stacked up in pyres in Nairobi National Park where it is expected to burn for several days. The ivory represents nearly the entire stock confiscated by Kenya, amounting to the tusks of about 6,700 elephants.

Some disagree with Kenya’s approach, saying it can encourage poaching.

ivory burning

Suppose even that some – say 10% – of this contraband ivory – if it hadn’t been destroyed – would have found its way back to the illegal market. To that extent the price of ivory would have been held down. Now the price will have increased in  response to the shortfall in supply. And any increase in the black market price will only increase the incentive for the poachers. That part of the ivory destroyed – which would have found its way to the black market – will now have to be replaced by additional poaching.

The ivory comes mainly from African elephants for markets in Asia. The producer countries are primarily Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and the consumption is in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Elephant poaching is driven by the demand for ivory and the price the consumer is prepared to pay. Around 20,000 elephants are killed by poachers every year (from a population of about 500,000). That is driven by the demand for about 1,000 – 1,500 tons of raw ivory every year. Currently the price of raw ivory – I am told – is about $2,500 per kg (from around $1,500 for small tusks to over $3,000 for large tusks). In 2010 this was less than $1,000 per kg. Most of this price increase reflects an increase of demand and not a scarcity of supply. As long as this demand holds up (overwhelmingly from China), it is worthwhile for poachers and traders to risk being caught.

The only way poaching will stop is when it is not worthwhile for a poacher to ply his trade. Either because the risk of being caught is too high or because the return on the enterprise is too low. The price for illicit ivory has to crash if poaching is to be curtailed. The volume of the demand can only be addressed by education and that is a slow process. The other factor which could help would be if a reducing demand could be met by “legal” ivory. Around 30,000 – 40,000 elephants, I estimate, die of natural causes every year. Their tusks are usually destroyed. But they could form part – or even all – of a “legal” trade which serves to depress the price of raw ivory. Mammoth ivory recovered from the Siberian permafrost could also form a useful addition to the “legal supply”.

Preventing poaching and prosecuting traders is all very well, but ultimately the consumer demand has to be educated out. Raw ivory price has to be brought down to a level where poaching is just not worthwhile.

Kenya would have done better to flood the market with this ivory. It would have prevented or at least delayed the poaching of some 5,000+ elephants.


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