moral dilemma

Fighting The Ivory Trade: The Lessons Learned

According to the estimates, in 1979 there were at least 1.3 million African elephants. By early 1990s, that number dropped by more than half, to 600,000. Today, the estimates stand around 415,000, with additional 100 elephants being lost every day, mostly to the poachers engaged in ivory trade.

Recently, the Economist has published a film describing the scope of the problem, and the efforts African countries are currently involved in trying to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, poaching, - I'd highly suggest watching it (it's only 6 minutes long).

The fight to stop poaching is a tough and complicated one, and as one can learn from the film, the best of intentions can sometimes lead to terrible consequences, undoing a lot of the good work that had been done previously. This is something I wanted to focus on, as I believe it's helpful to learn about some of the strategies described in the video, and the reasoning behind them, as those can widely applicable to a number of other issues as well.

The fight to end ivory trade has been going on for decades now, and while it hasn't always been a success, some progress has been made. However, while killing elephant for ivory had been made illegal, the trade itself wasn't completely banned: an exceptions has been made for some countries who made an effort to control the poaching, and the ivory trade also remained legal, albeit with restrictions, in the countries that generated the majority of demand (China, Japan, U.K.). That, in turn, created a surreal situation when the legal and illegal trade co-existed side by side.

The problem is, while one can announce that trading the tusks carved before a certain date is legal, while trading in any tusks carved after that date is not allowed (e.g. this is exactly how the system was set up in the U.K., where trading in tusks carved before 1947 remained legal), there is no real way to separate the demand into those artificial buckets. Moreover, as it turned out, the very fact that the ivory trade was still allowed, even with all of the restrictions, legitimized the desire to own ivory in the eyes of those looking to purchase it.

This became particularly clear in 2008, when the decision to legally sell 102 tons of stockpiled tusks was made. As the tusks have been being seized over the years, it has never been clear what to do with them in the long run, and guarding those has remained expensive and often unsafe. So the argument has been made that the legal sell-off would help to raise the money needed for continuing the conservation efforts, and would also help to depress the prices for ivory, making poaching less economically attractive.

That decision, however, backfired terribly. Those involved in the illegal trade viewed it as a signal that the ivory trade is back (legal or illegal). Moreover, the huge amount of legal ivory flooding the market created a perfect cover for the expansion of illegal trade, as it was often impossible to trace the origin of the tusks. And as it turned out, the legal sell-off didn't even depress the prices, instead, they continued rising - there were multiple theories on why that was the case, with the main explanation accepted today being that the excess demand for the ivory was there, and the legal sell-off certainly didn't help to promote the idea that purchasing ivory might be wrong or immoral.

In 2016, Kenya, trying to decide what to do with a huge amount (105 tons) of stockpiled tusks, and given the terrible outcome of the legal sell-off in 2008, decided to take a different approach: it chose to burn them. It wasn't the first time Kenya was doing that: it first burned 12 tons in 1989 in a widely publicized (and criticized) event, but it has never yet aimed to destroy such a unbelievably huge amount of tusks.

At the first glance, this idea might seem insane: those 105 tons were valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used to fund further conservation efforts. Moreover, burning so much ivory could have created a sense of scarcity, driving the price of ivory even higher. Finally, some argued that destroying tusks denigrated the dead animals, and sent the message that they were of no value. And yet, Kenya chose to proceed with its plan, widely publicizing the event.

The result: the price of ivory went from $2,000 per kilo in 2013 to around $700 today. That wasn't, of course, the result of Kenya choosing to burn the stockpiled tusks alone. Rather, it came as a result of a series of orchestrated efforts to raise the awareness of the terrible consequences that the demand for ivory had for African elephants, as well as the gradually imposed bans on the legal trade throughout the world (in particular, in China and Hong Kong).

One might argue that the collapse of the legal trade should have just shifted the demand to the illegal market, creating scarcity and driving prices even higher. However, that didn't actually happen, and that's what made this strategy so valuable to learn from.

As it turned out, to a significant extent the demand for ivory was driven by the justification that the existence of legal trade provided it with, and also by general unawareness of the buyers of the real source of most of the ivory they were buying, and the suffering their demand had generated. The phase out of the legal ivory trade that's happening right now, together with the public efforts of the African governments to draw attention to the issue, stripped those moral justifications, and as a result, the demand for the ivory collapsed.

The supply and demand laws of the free market were, of course, still in place, but the relationship between those turned out to be much more complicated than many might have expected. This isn't something unique to the ivory trade, either, - there are other cases where the relationship between supply and demand is complex, and therefore requires very careful management to avoid disastrous consequences. I sincerely hope that those lessons of 2008 and 2016 would be further researched and publicized, as the price paid for these insights was surely too high to let it go to waste.