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Ivory trade

What 100 tons of ivory looks like

Motivated by an article by Dave Currey, I had a look at the amount of legal ivory in international trade between 1980 and 1989. These were the heady days of the trade, largely because in the 1980s the international community, via CITES, attempted to establish an “ivory control system” to allow the legal international sales of ivory in its many forms. It was basically a 1980’s version of what is being proposed again – sell legal ivory to undercut the poachers, satisfy the demand and stop the killing. As Dave said, it was an abject failure, led to almost a million elephants gunned down and likely led to the birth of the illegal international ivory trade networks. It also eventually led to the international ivory “ban” in 1989 that provided a temporary respite to the killing. That of course was reversed when CITES, the WWF, TRAFFIC and many others decided that ivory from stockpiles was again cool to sell in 1999 and 2008. And the poaching ramped up again.

I’ll come back to the poaching in a minute, but let’s just look at the African elephant ivory trade over the ten years 1980-1989, leading up to the ivory ban. The numbers are from the CITES trade database, and I have omitted some categories of ivory (grams of carvings, “sets” of carvings, “pairs” of carvings, grams of ivory pieces) in trade to focus on the major and most numerous trade items. As a visual comparison for the amounts of ivory I list, look at this picture of the recent ivory burn in Kenya that represented about 100 tons or thereabouts.

During 1980-1989, 144,390 individual tusks were traded, in addition to 6,468 tons of tusks, 408,283 “ivory pieces” and 465 tons of ivory pieces. Also, 180 million individual ivory carvings were traded (yes, 180 MILLION), as well as 1,585 tons of ivory carvings. Read those numbers again, and remember that was only the “legal” trade at that time.

Who was importing all this ivory? In terms of the 144,390 individual tusks, the top five importing nations/territories were, in order, Japan, USA, Hong Kong, UK and Germany. In terms of the 6,468 tons of tusks, most went, in order, to Hong Kong, Japan, Belgium, China, and the UK. Interestingly, over 100 tons of tusks also went to France, Germany and India. In terms of the 408,283 ivory pieces, most went, in order, to UK, Germany, US, Hong Kong, and Japan. In terms of the 465 tons of ivory pieces, most went, in order, to Hong Kong, Japan, China, Taiwan and Germany. In terms of the 180 million individual ivory carvings, most went, in order, to Hong Kong, Japan, US, Germany and Denmark. And finally, in terms of the 1,585 tons of ivory carvings, most went, in order, to Germany, Japan, US, France and Italy.

So who was exporting all this ivory? Let’s first look at the nations that had African elephants at that time and were thus the source countries. Of those, the top five major exporters of individual tusks were, in order, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia (with Botswana close behind). The top five exporters of tons of tusks were, in order, Sudan, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, South Africa, and Botswana (with Burundi coming close behind Botswana, even though Burundi had almost no elephants).

In terms of exports of bits of ivory and ivory carvings, most of the ivory pieces and tons of ivory pieces were exported from UK, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Belgium. Most of the individual ivory carvings and tons of ivory carvings were exported from China, Hong Kong, UK, India and Taiwan. Interestingly, 136 tons of ivory carvings were exported from the Republic of the Congo; those local carvers must have been very, very busy.

Overall, there are many, many aspects of this massive database that can be examined in a lot more detail, and I would strongly advise this is undertaken. For example, the UK emerges as a major ivory trading nation during this time, and was significantly involved in the trade of raw ivory as well as carved ivory. Tons and tons passed in and out of the UK. Similarly, the massive role of Hong Kong needs some very careful evaluation. During this time, 1980-1989, Hong Kong was still under British Administration, but was a conduit for raw and worked ivory between the UK and China, India, Thailand, Japan and the US. Therefore, between the UK trade itself and the British Dependent Territory of Hong Kong, the UK was by far the biggest ivory trader before the 1989 ivory ban. The UK remains a major trader in ivory carvings.

Other interesting snippets of information that come out from all this data is the massive scale of ivory trading that happened in Germany, France and especially Belgium. The latter country exported 1,017 tons of tusks and 10,119 individual tusks during 1980-1989. Belgium only imported 522 tons of tusks and 1094 individual tusks during that time. Where did the rest come from? Neither CITES nor Belgian authorities seemed to have questioned this radical discrepancy, but there is a clear indication that Belgium was heavily involved in illegal trading and ivory laundering.

The same question can be asked of Burundi. During 1980-1989, that small African country with hardly any resident elephants (and therefore no way of building up any legal stockpiles) managed to export 212 tons of tusks while importing only one tusk and 10kg of tusks. This completely skewed trade seemed to have gone unnoticed by CITES and all other monitoring organizations. Burundi’s exports went to Hong Kong, Japan and Belgium, and none of those countries seemed to mind that Burundi had no elephants to speak of. This was all illegal trade laundered into the legal streams.

Another aspect of the ivory trade that should be immediately obvious is the massive scale. Just from the tusks and tons of tusks involved, this trade represented ivory from well over 400,000 elephants. That’s pretty close to all of the elephants remaining in Africa today being in trade in the ten years 1980-1989. And that was just the “legal” trade that was going on.

Poaching was of course also massive during that time. Just in Kenya alone, elephant numbers declined from 140,000 in the 1970s to 16,000 in 1989. Tsavo elephants declined from 20,000 to about 1,000. All the figures above refer to the legal (and perhaps laundered) ivory trade, but alongside that there was clearly a thriving illegal trade.

What this demonstrates is the massive scale of the demand, whether to use the ivory immediately or to stockpile it in huge piles speculating on price increases and the concept of “get it while the going is good”. And therefore how completely unrealistic the expectation that suddenly, in 1989, the ban on ivory trading would be seamlessly adopted by everyone. Instead, the ivory trade just went underground, and continued poaching and the massive stockpiles established in places like Hong Kong (under British rule), Singapore, Japan and China provided for the shortfalls and provided convenient laundries for poached ivory. As Dave Currey mentioned, the Hong Kong “registered” stockpile has continued to be used to launder ivory for the past 26 years, and the same scam has been used in other countries with “registered” stocks established either pre-1989 or after the CITES-approved sales in 1999 and 2008. Dave also proposed that the 1980s could have been the time when the major ivory poaching and illegal trading cartels were established and flourished, and were able to use their financial clout to recruit more and more corrupt politicians, wildlife, police and customs officers, businesspeople, magistrates and judges, etc into their networks. Those networks remain today.  

Has much changed? Was anything learned from all this? Not really. We still have African nations clamouring to resume trade assuming that their pathetic little piles of ivory will undercut prices of illegal ivory and reduce poaching. The stockpiles of South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia likely don’t add up to more than 400 tons of ivory. During 1980-1989, that amount of raw ivory entered the markets every 8 months for ten years and made no dent in poaching. If elephants are going to be saved, the trade must be completely stopped, nationally and internationally


Picture credit: Baltimore Sun

Add a comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 14:49