Will the U.S. Destruction of Six Tons of Ivory Truly Curtail Poachers?

Candice Gaukel Andrews November 19, 2013 17

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the illegal ivory trade today is a $10 billion global industry. ©Don Martinson

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulverized nearly six tons of illegal African and Asian elephant ivory. A conservative estimate of this ivory, which was seized at our nation’s ports of entry from the late 1980s to the present, is that it represents 2,000 animals. The crushing was carried out at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside of Denver and meant to draw attention to the global poaching crisis.

Commercial ivory trade was banned in the United States in 1989. The demolishing of our stockpile is the first time the U.S. has destroyed such large quantities. The event was attended by news media from around the world, causing some to speculate that it was staged to pacify wildlife advocates who are urging increased international enforcement to stop illegal traders from killing elephants and turning their tusks into trinkets and statues.

Elephants are now in danger of going extinct in 12 years. Will countries that destroy their ivory inventories really make a difference in saving the planet’s pachyderms?

Demand for “white gold”

The pulverized U.S. ivory represents at least a couple thousand elephants. ©Eric Rock

Because of the high price it garners on the black market, ivory is known as “white gold.” Samuel K. Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, has calculated that the worldwide ivory trade was worth $264 million from 2000 to 2010. He believes the value today is far higher, based on the soaring amount confiscated globally. The demand, states a Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC) report, is fueled by China’s booming economy, which has created a vast middle class with the ability to buy ivory carvings prized as status symbols. Poached rhino horn is also sold to the affluent in Asia, who think it can cure a series of ills, including cancer and hangovers, and that it can boost virility. Last year alone, about 745 rhinos were poached throughout Africa—the highest number in two decades.

Some are worried that if countries keep their ivory stockpiles, they could become a target for stealing. This year, $5.3 million in ivory, rhino horns and leopard skins was seized in Nigeria; $2.2 million of ivory was recovered in Togo; and a $1.4 million ivory shipment from Kenya was intercepted. In 2006, 3.7 tons of ivory vanished from the Philippine inventory; and in 2012, thefts were reported at government vaults in Zambia and Botswana.

According to Secretary of State John Kerry, the illegal ivory trade has doubled worldwide since 2007, with the United States the second-largest retail market (after China) for illicitly acquired ivory. In addition to our nation’s recent ivory destruction, Kerry announced that a $1 million reward has been set up to help dismantle elephant and rhino trafficking syndicates, such as the Xaysavang Network, a Laos-based operation with affiliates in China, Malaysia, Mozambique, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam.

Just a well-meaning gesture

Destroying ivory is hardly new. According to World Wildlife Fund, Kenya held the world’s first large ivory bonfire in 1989, torching 12 tons in an event that drew international attention and helped to create a global ban in 1990 on ivory sales between countries. Kenya held a second burn in 2011. Zambia set fire to 9.5 tons in 1992, and Gabon burned nearly five tons in 2011. This year in June, the Philippines became the first Asian country to destroy its stocks when it burned and crushed more than five tons of ivory confiscated since 2009.

Seventy years ago, there were about five million elephants in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, just several hundred thousand are left. ©Eric Rock

Despite all of this, elephant poaching is at record levels. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) estimates that poachers kill 35,000 African elephants annually for their ivory. Rising incomes and traditional values in China are not the only drivers. Civil wars, the shock of the 2008 global financial crisis and corruption are helping to supply ivory in a way that’s divorced from final markets. It’s likely that a lot of ivory is again being stockpiled.

What’s even more alarming is that the era of the freelance local poacher is over. Today, poaching is more likely to be done by far more menacing professional armed gangs, sometimes with military ties and equipment.

Critics say that the U.S. destruction of its ivory signals criminal organizations that ivory is becoming scarcer, causing a race to accumulate even more ivory. Others believe the ban is the wrong strategy and that a regulated trade may be the way forward. Ramping up competition against the smugglers by dumping a lot of ivory into the markets would depress prices and run poachers out of business.

As for the U.S.’s crushed ivory, the Fish and Wildlife Service is working with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to develop a creative and informative use for it.

Do you think destroying ivory stockpiles will stop the decimation of the planet’s elephants before they disappear forever?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,


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  1. Justin Proffer November 23, 2013 at 5:20 am - Reply

    Mr. Downes, are we not already seeing every last living elephant being absorbed due to poaching? I was not suggesting a legal harvest of elephants for ivory, merely selling the already confiscated illegal ivory at low prices to slow poaching in the short term. I qualified this argument with adding that it would only work if we convinced offending countries to aggressively pursue end buyers with large fines and considerable jail time.

  2. Azzedine T. Downes November 21, 2013 at 10:32 am - Reply

    I know that the idea of flooding the market is out there and seems like a sensible idea. I am absolutely convinced that there is no way to flood the market with ivory. 26 Million new families in China will have disposible income over the next two years enabling them to purchase at least a kilo of ivory. Do the math. There is not bottom to the market and it could absorb every last living elephant without pausing.

  3. Victoria Johnson November 21, 2013 at 10:24 am - Reply

    As sad as it is, i dont think they will stop. Why would they suddenly change just because the ivory was destroyed. As you say John, the price of ivory will probably go up and isn’t that why people kill, to make money.

  4. John A Burton November 21, 2013 at 10:23 am - Reply

    certainly will not stop poaching. But almost certainly help increase the value of ivory, and lead in turn to increased poaching. Latter is more difficult to prove, but that doesn’t mean it wont happen. Destruction is irreversible. Stockpiling is a much better option. Creates the fear of flooding the market and devaluing all the other stockpiles, which in turn reduces demand (possibly!).

  5. Lawan Bukar Marguba November 21, 2013 at 10:22 am - Reply

    On the contrary it may fuel the desire to acquire ivory by any means. I support Mo’s suggest that the authorities should stop poaching and discourage the buyers of ivory.

  6. John November 21, 2013 at 10:03 am - Reply

    It certainly will not curtail the trade. Plenty of evidence of that. It will probably raise the value of stockpiled ivory (evidence not so easily available, but nonetheless almost certain)

  7. Dick Schaffer November 21, 2013 at 9:28 am - Reply

    I would say the poachers are busy replacing that ivory right now. The buyers are still there. The war on drugs has not done anything to slow down the use of drugs so why would we expect this to change anything. Things won’t change until we run out of ivory or we run out of buyers. The whaling industry might be a good example of how this is going to end if the elephants are lucky.

  8. Frederic Hore November 21, 2013 at 9:27 am - Reply

    Destroying confiscated ivory will do nothing to stop poachers, as it was the middlemen who suffered, not the poachers. They were paid when they trucked their booty to local merchants. Only when authorities go after and prosecute the local buyers and middlemen in the chain, will progress be made. Unfortunately, the terrain in Africa is huge, and game wardens few. Some may be honest, but some I have been told, look the other way. Graft in many of these countries is also common. A difficult situation to overcome… and a difficult future for the elephants.

  9. Fiona November 20, 2013 at 7:05 pm - Reply

    No it won’t stop the ivory poachers, but it feels good that the US are making a bold statement, like many other countries have done before in the same way. It’s a message of defiance against the ivory trade and a means to highlight the worldwide destruction of wildlife.

  10. Eric Biltonen November 20, 2013 at 11:59 am - Reply

    No. It would have likely have been more useful to sell it and use the money to fund conservation efforts.

  11. mo norrington November 20, 2013 at 11:59 am - Reply

    I would say that it will have the reverse effect in that they will play “catch up”. Eradicate the buyers and you stop the poachers is the only effective solution.

  12. Justin Proffer November 20, 2013 at 11:57 am - Reply

    While this may raise public awareness I do not think it will have any affect on future poaching practices. If anything I believe it will only increase poaching. By destroying ivory we are only enhancing the supply shortage and increasing black market prices. While I am not comfortable with selling ivory products, I think a more practical solution would involve governments tagging confiscated ivory and then selling this ivory to countries where it is in demand to flood the market and reduce the profitability to poachers. However, this would only work if those countries were on aboard by aggressively pursuing and incarcerating/fining owners of illegal ivory.

  13. Candice Gaukel Andrews November 20, 2013 at 10:21 am - Reply


    Yes, they have tried dyes with rhinos, too!

    Thanks for your comment!

  14. Diane Arrieta November 20, 2013 at 10:19 am - Reply

    I really don’t think it will do anything to curtail poachers. I think it may be more of a symbolic gesture to raise awareness. I think new creative approaches are going to be needed to stop it. Here is one…


  15. PROF. PARTHASARATHI CHATTOPADHYAY November 20, 2013 at 10:17 am - Reply

    Poachers will continue to poach pachyderms for ivory. They did it in the past. They do it now. And they will do it in future. No amount of confiscated-ivory burning can ignite their conscience so as not to kill these magnificent behemoths. And this trend will continue until or unless we stop consumption of ivory, we stop decorate our room with handicrafts made of ivory. Though ivory (unlike rhino horn) is not used as a potion, a panacea of incurable diseases, use of ivory is much more rampant that has diffused throughout the veins of human society since recorded human history. And these gentle giants have fell to the human greed in ever-increasing number. Invention of guns and their sophistication have added fuel to their decimation. Unfortunately the rugged terrains, dense forest, inaccessible locations, what should have been the safe haven to them, have denied their safety to the advantage of the poachers. And it has become a challenging task to the Governments of Asian and African countries to counter this threat. Crackdowns on poaching is most welcome and absolutely necessary, simultaneously it is equally imperative not to use ivory in any form—a global awareness spread through media, Governments, and NGOs.

    Thanks Madam Andrews for your fitting question over a timely issue.

  16. Bill Mashek November 20, 2013 at 6:22 am - Reply

    Doubt it will have much effect on poaching, However, It will keep it off the market. Poachers are only poor folks providing a service to the bad people who want the product and are willing to pay a lot of money. We have to go after the bad people!!.

  17. sinnadurai sripadmanaban November 20, 2013 at 6:21 am - Reply

    it will trigger fresh killings

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