What To Do With Illegal Ivory?

U.S. Fish And Wildfire Service Destroy Six Tons Of Confiscated Ivory

Until last week, the US government had a little-known cache of ivory carvings, jewelry, and other products – all illegal. On Thursday, the Fish and Wildlife Service publicly pulverized all six tons of it:

The so-called “ivory crush” is a first for the agency, which has previously stored all seized contraband at various government facilities. … [It] is only one part of a broader federal initiative to thwart poaching and illegal trafficking. First announced by President Obama in July, the $10 million campaign will also train park rangers and local officials in African poaching hubs, and work towards mandating stiffer penalties for anyone caught smuggling ivory into the United States. Yet another effort, this one launched by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is performing DNA analysis on seized ivory in an effort to track its origins and zero in on where poaching is most ubiquitous.

These efforts come at a time when elephant poaching is making a devastating comeback: an international ban on ivory sales in 1989 has recently been undermined by increased demand for illicit ivory, and the FWS now estimates that some 30,000 elephants are killed each year.

Bryan Christie calls the crush a largely symbolic act, but adds that “symbolism counts”:

Ivory destruction ceremonies have been a litmus test for where a country stands on the ivory trade ever since Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi torched 13 tons of ivory in 1989, setting the stage for a vote to ban international trade in ivory by parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). That ban went into effect in 1990. Six months later, the U.S. ivory market collapsed.

With no international market, it might have been reasonable for all CITES parties to destroy their ivory stocks after the 1990 international ivory ban took effect. But the ban did not last. In 1999 and again in 2008 parties to CITES voted to allow ivory sales. The first sale was of 55 tons to Japan and the second, of 115 tons to Japan and China.  In the wake of the China sale, elephant poaching and ivory trafficking have boomed. So has the need for international action.

But Yglesias thinks the destroying the ivory is a mistake:

By destroying the ivory, you create even more ivory scarcity and increase the incentives for future poaching. It seems like the more reasonable approach would be to arrest and punish human beings who are committing crimes, and then sell the seized ivory and use the proceeds to finance more anti-poaching efforts. … Via Tyler Cowen, a 2000 paper by Michael Kremer and Charles Morcom offers a hybrid solution. They say don’t sell the ivory and don’t destroy it either. Instead stockpile the ivory and say it’ll be dumped on the market if the elephant population falls below some critical threshold value.

Meanwhile, Derek Mead worries about parallels with the Drug War:

If this [ivory crush] sounds something like the massively-publicized busts and marijuana burning events that have remained in vogue in the drug war, it’s because they’re indeed quite similar. In both cases, the market has become so large and widespread that catching every vendor simply isn’t feasible. And in both cases, quelling demand and shrinking the market is the most stable long-term solution. By publicizing high-profile busts – or crushing tons of ivory with a steamroller in front of cameras – authorities get the dual benefit of showing potential customers that this is not okay, while also hopefully scaring off some vendors here and there. … The US is making strides this week to fight against wildlife crime, which it is undoubtedly interested in because of the national security angle. But the US crushing ivory, educating citizens, and putting out bounties isn’t enough, just as policing narcotics in some place and turning a blind eye in others has left the drug war stuck in a state of perpetuity.

Update from a reader:

I appreciate your efforts to raise awareness of the global crisis in wildlife poaching and trafficking.  I work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was at the event, and I think it’s important to put the crush in its proper perspective. Some have argued that this stock and other illegal ivory stockpiles held by foreign governments should be sold, in an effort to alleviate the demand for ivory. But they are by far in the minority, and don’t represent the consensus of the wildlife community, international law enforcement, and even economists who have studied this issue. Decades of experience shows that allowing ivory to enter legal trade only makes enforcement harder, by giving traffickers additional ways to disguise sources of poached ivory. And past sales have only fueled demand, maintaining the perception among consumers that ivory is a status symbol, rather than an emblem of greed and callous indifference to life.

The ivory we crushed last week is a fraction of the stocks held by foreign governments, and would have no impact on the global market. Tanzania alone holds more than 120 tons, 20 times what the United States has seized. Even if every government sold their ivory stocks, there’s little chance it would alleviate demand. And if by some miracle prices did happen to drop, it would simply open up the market to a vast new segment of consumers in Asia and other parts of the world.

In this sense, critics are partially right. We cannot solve this problem by cracking down on the supply of illegal ivory alone. Unless the demand side of this terrible equation is addressed, poaching will continue at some level commensurate with the risks. But the solution lies in stigmatizing the sale and possession of ivory, not facilitating it. As long as it’s socially acceptable to own ivory, people will attempt to supply it.

Selling our ivory would have sent a terrible message to the world. Judging by the outpouring of support we’ve received from around the world, we’ve sent a far better one by destroying it.

Previous Dish on poaching here.

(Photo: Six tons of crushed ivory is displayed during the U.S. Ivory Crush event at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colorado. By Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)