© WWF / Mike Goldwater

the global ivory trade our views on the key issues

© WWF / Mike Goldwater


ivory: our perspective and priorities

The global ivory trade and the African elephant poaching crisis have remained a key wildlife conservation issue for decades.

A phenomenal degree of attention, resources, and sacrifice has been made by NGOs, rangers and individuals the world over to help stem the flow of illegal ivory and protect Africa’s threatened elephant populations. The drivers and facilitators of illegal ivory trade are shifting and complex, and various strategies and policies have been both suggested or implemented as a result. Below are our perspectives on key issues surrounding ivory trade.

key issues:

domestic bans,
ivory destruction,
African processing,
behavioural change

how we reach our policy position on ivory

In 1997 the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) mandated TRAFFIC to establish and maintain a robust system to monitor ivory trade, now known as the Elephant Trade and Information System (ETIS).

This centralised database holds tens of thousands of records pertaining to ivory seizures and law enforcement actions from more than 100 countries and enables us to monitor and analyse complicated trade flows and evolving market dynamics with unrivaled precision.

By referring to the ivory market’s past reactions to global policy changes and maintaining a watchful eye over dynamic illicit trade flows, TRAFFIC, in conjunction with CITES management authorities, is able to confidently develop policies that prioritise the conservation of elephant populations above all other considerations associated with ivory trade.

closing domestic ivory markets

TRAFFIC has been at the forefront of exposing unregulated domestic ivory markets and has supported efforts to close those fuelling illegal trade.

In Thailand, our technical expertise underpinned a WWF campaign, leading to substantial reformation of Thai legislation and, ultimately, an almost total contraction of the domestic ivory market. More recently, TRAFFIC’s China office, along with other NGOs, was pivotal in securing the domestic ban in mainland China—whose ivory trade was a driving force behind Africa’s elephant poaching crisis for years.

TRAFFIC’s policy on domestic markets is aligned with the recent key CITES Resolution (Resolution Conf. 10.10 Rev.CoP17) which recommends that any Parties whose legal domestic ivory market is contributing to poaching or illegal trade “take all necessary legislative, regulatory and enforcement measures to close their domestic markets”.

As such, whilst historical ivory trade legacies affect many parts of the world, there are inherent dangers associated with diluting the focus to ivory within regions that are not currently driving African Elephant poaching or ivory trafficking. Misplaced attention not only takes already scarce resources away from other localised conservation issues but also deflects global attention away from the true drivers of elephant poaching.

It is also key that domestic bans not be seen as the final step. Mainland China’s domestic ban for example seems to have displaced markets to neighbouring countries and there still remain unanswered questions regarding existing stockpiles. It is imperative that such dialogue continues, and that it translates into ongoing action to reduce levels of elephant poaching.

ivory crushes, burns and audits

Gabon, Congo and the USA are among countries who have recently exhibited their views on ivory trade by publicly destroying stockpiles of confiscated elephant tusks and worked ivory.

The primary logic behind these events is twofold; to avoid sought-after wildlife resources from falling (back) into criminal hands; and to publicly denounce ivory trade and the associated poaching that fuels it.

Unfortunately, although such actions are mostly well-intentioned, there is little hard evidence to suggest they have an impact in deterring criminal activity or influencing consumption within end markets. There has in fact been speculation that ivory destruction can in fact mask corruption in cases where stockpiles have lacked an impartial auditing process.

To add to this, the destruction of “antique” ivory (carved or “worked” products acquired before 3rd March 1947) has little to no impact on current illicit trade flows or poaching given ivory of such an age is unappealing to underground processing plants.

TRAFFIC has always maintained that strict, impartial auditing take place before any destruction of ivory stockpiles and that burns or crushes be carried out alongside meaningful national and international action to combat poaching, trafficking and illegal ivory trade.

social and behavioural change initiatives

The rise of social and behavioural change communications initiatives in recent years have been supported by an increasing wealth of academic research into the methodology behind their development, application and monitoring.

Under Res.10.10 under CITES, parties were recommended to support legislative and enforcement action concerning ivory trade with targeted demand reduction and behavioural change initiatives, many of whom have already done so domestically.

TRAFFIC has pursued an evidence-led approach in terms of behavioural change, consulting industry experts and conducting research into best practices and successful strategies that help reduce the consumption of illegal wildlife products. In countries and territories including mainland China, Hong Kong and Viet Nam, we have seen the positive affect that can result from such initiatives.

TRAFFIC runs an online Community of Practice toolkit for those looking to reduce the demand for illegal wildlife products. The platform provides researches, stakeholders and marketing experts with the latest resources, tools and discussion forums to ensure best practices are used.

As with any social change campaign, it is important that these initatives are supported by effective legislative and enforcement commitments by government.

processing of ivory in Africa

Traditionally, the modus operandi most favoured by ivory traffickers was to smuggle whole or pieces of elephant tusks from Africa to Asia, where they would be processed and worked locally.

Recent investigations however have uncovered the alarming trend of ivory being semi or partially worked, cut and processed on continent before being smuggled to end markets. This development poses clear enforcement challenges given that smaller pieces of ivory are more difficult to intercept, detect and identify.

We have found that criminal syndicates of Chinese origin have set up shop in African countries in a reaction to increased legislative national and international focus on illicit ivory trade. It is essential that international law enforcement and Customs agencies are alerted to this new development and given the necessary tools to effectively counter it.