Ivory tusks and worked ivory have been kept as ornamental trophies and a sign of wealth for hundreds of years, but the ivory carving industry in India is said to date back 4,000 years (Martin and Vigne, 1989). Elephant tusks are the typical ivory commodity being illegally trafficked to consumers all over the world, but warthog tusks, walrus tusks, narwhal tusks, and hippopotamus teeth have also been taken as trophies for their ivory, used for scrimshaw, and even sold to tourists. Mammoth tusks are also excavated, particularly in Siberia, and the mammoth ivory is legally traded worldwide.
In late 1989 African elephants, the dominant source of ivory today, were officially listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) under Appendix I, which provides the highest level of protection for a species by prohibiting international commercial trade of live specimens or its parts. During the ten years before this listing, from 1979 to 1989, the elephant population in Africa is estimated to have fallen from roughly 1.3 million to around 600,000, more than a 50% decline. Since then a few country-specific populations of elephants in Southern Africa have had their protection downgraded to facilitate legal trade of government stocks, conservation-related translocation, and non-commercial hunting while maintaining a level of protection consistent with their healthy elephant populations. Additionally there were two one-time sales permitted by CITES to allow specific African nations to sell stockpiled ivory directly to Asian governments.
Asian elephants were added to Appendix I in 1975 and have remained there as a result of continuing pressure on their populations from habitat destruction, poaching, and human-wildlife conflict (page 42). Contrasting with male and female African elephants who both have tusks, in the Asian elephant species only the males have visible tusks. This has led to a decimation of male Asian elephant populations in some regions of India due to foreign demand for ivory.
In 2011 more than 9,000 elephant carcasses were documented (page 32) at Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program sites in Africa and an estimated 17,000 African elephants were illegally killed within those sites that year. Data from 2013 estimates that 15,000 African elephants were killed in MIKE sites. The exact number of elephants killed throughout all of Africa is unknown, but is suspected to be significantly higher.
In recent years a significant portion of elephants killed illegally have occurred in Central Africa, even though it is home to less than one third of Africa’s elephants. Eastern African has also lost a significant number of elephants due to poaching and these countries are much more dependent on wildlife-related tourism revenue. Some of the illegally acquired ivory ends up in domestic markets but tens of thousands of kilograms are trafficked to Asia each year (view the African Wildlife Foundation’s trafficking infographic). Numerous regions within Central Africa are experiencing extreme violence caused by rebel militias and there is evidence that these groups are killing elephants (page 16) and selling the ivory, or trading it for weapons and supplies, as a means of continuing their insurgency (full report). Elephants within the national parks of Democratic Republic of Congo are also under threat as are the anti-poaching rangers who protect them.
Ivory flows from all over the continent into major departure points, most notably Kenya and Tanzania, and in 2011 customs officials from these countries seized 16 shipments each with more than 100 kg of ivory (page 45). That same year Kenya, Tanzania, and several other countries seized a total of 17 ivory shipments that each weighed more than 800 kg (page 46). Historical records of ivory seizures show that seizing massive shipments of ivory has become a common trend over the past few years. In at least some instances this ivory is returned to the origination point of the shipment as in 2002 when Singapore returned a shipment of 532 elephant tusks to authorities in Kenya. Nations like Kenya and Tanzania which currently or historically had huge elephant populations had and continue to accrue vast stores of raw ivory from the retrieval of tusks from elephants that die of natural causes, from confiscation during arrest of poachers, or due to elephant population culling.
But not all the shipments are being directly shipped to Asia before making it to local markets. In January of 2015 Ugandan officials seized a shipment of 137 ivory tusks weighing 700 kg and destined for Amsterdam; whether there was a different final destination is unknown. The ivory shipment had an estimated street value of $1.5 million or $2,142 per kilo ($973 per pound), which compares to $1,500 per kilogram for ivory purchased in 2010.
Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa are the major departure points (page 49) in Africa for illicit ivory on its way to Asian markets. Thailand and China are the most common final destinations (page 43) but Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam are both destinations and act as transit points of illegally acquired ivory.
Shuidong Town (Shuǐ Dōng Zhèn, 水东镇) was discovered in 2016 to be a major destination in the illegal ivory trade (page 2), with a history of illicit ivory trafficking beginning in the late 1990s and building on a foundation of legal sealife imports and trade. With the rise of ivory demand in China during the late 1990s, traders and syndicates based out of Shuidong Town were able to effectively create trade networks both between their coastal province of Guangdong and nearby Chinese trade ports, including Hong Kong and Shanghai, as well as originating ports in Tanzania and Kenya on the east coast of Africa and Nigeria on the west coast (pages 4, 16). They also established ivory supply networks in Mozambique (page 10), one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Although the port of Maoming is nearby, illegal ivory is frequently trafficked through the larger ports of Hong Kong and Shanghai, and transported to Shuidong Town syndicates via overland routes (pages 16, 19, 20). Ports in Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam (page 15) act as entrepôts between African and Chinese ports and aid in obscuring the true origin of the shipment with the assistance of corrupt customs officials and falsified documents at virtually every transit point (page 18). Perhaps as a result of this domestic and international trade network, Putian (Pú Tián Shì, 中国 福建省莆田市) in Fujian province has become one of the largest processors of raw ivory in China and is believed to be a major purchaser of ivory coming from syndicates operating out of Shuidong Town (page 4).
In the 1970s, and until the international ivory trade ban went into effect, the major consumers were Japan, the United States, and Europe (To Save an Elephant by Allan Thornton) and together accounted for as much as 80% of worldwide ivory consumption. Among the uses for worked ivory were piano keys; ornamental inlays including in firearms; billiards cue balls; and inkan or hanko, traditional Japanese document seals. During the period 1979-1989 when demand was strongest for ivory the elephant population in Africa is estimated to have fallen from roughly 1.3 million to around 600,000.
As ivory demand from western and Japanese markets increased Hong Kong, a British territory, would become among the largest of the transit points for worked ivory. By the 1980s it had become the largest marketplace for worked ivory (page 13) and was supplied by illicit raw ivory transited through Portuguese-owned Macau and later by Singapore. As Hong Kong was not required to have a CITES-certified export permit for worked ivory it became a haven for illegally acquired ivory to be laundered into the regulated market of registered ivory and sold as though it were legitimate (page 13). In the years leading up to the international ban, when stronger regulations would be imposed on worked ivory, ivory from African elephants was also laundered through other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Belgium (page 13), and Dubai (pages 16, 32) before making its way directly to Japan (page 19) or through Asian transit points and to Hong Kong.
Even before the ban of the ivory trade in 1989 nations that inadvertently served as major transit ports for illicit ivory had vast stockpiles of registered ivory would continue to be departure points for years after, including Southern African nations (page 27). In 1986 Hong Kong reportedly had 670 tonnes (1.47 million pounds) stockpiled for its carving factories (page 13). Singapore quickly became used as illicit ivory shipment staging points as well as a place where businesses from Hong Kong could build carving factories. The country had a registered stockpile of roughly 300 tonnes (661,000 pounds) in 1986, although some of that was illicit ivory with falsified registrations (page 42).
Since the ban went into effect Southern African governments, as well as China and Japan, have been the primary motivators to have one-off sales of ivory to the public or to push for a legalized trade in ivory. These are also the only nations to benefit from the one-off sales. There was significant support for the idea of a one-off sale because it might lessen the pressure on elephant populations created by consumer demand and the resulting illegal trade. After the implementation of controls to make sure the trade was fairly regulated preparations were made to allow select southern African countries to make a one-time sale of ivory to approved markets.
Elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe were downlisted in 1997 and South Africa’s elephants were downgraded in 2000, thereby permitting these countries to trade government-stockpiled, registered raw ivory to other nations in relation to their yearly quotas of up to 20,000 kilograms, 10,000 kg, and 30,000 kg respectively.
The first one-off sale was approved in 1997 and Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe sold government-held inventories (page 12) of ivory weighing 49,574 kilograms (109,292 pounds) to Japan. The sale was valued at roughly $5 million or about $100 per kilogram of raw ivory. During a second sale in late 2008 (page 12) South Africa joined Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe in selling 107,770 kg (237,592 pounds) of ivory to China and Japan. The sale was valued at nearly $15.5 million or around $140 per kilogram of raw ivory. The proceeds of both sales were intended to go to elephant conservation efforts in Africa, however documentation of oversight of the funds is lacking and it is not clear to the international community that rampant corrupt did not siphon away the proceeds. During this time the illegal ivory trade continued.
In 2010 Zambia and Tanzania submitted proposals to have their massive elephant populations downgraded and asked to be allowed to trade stockpiles of raw ivory weighing 21,692.23 kg and 89,848.74 kg respectively (page 2). These proposals were rejected. In 2013 Tanzania reported its elephant ivory stockpiles as totaling 101,000 kg (222,667 pounds) and in December of 2014 Zambia’s state-owned stockpile was “46 tons” [sic].
The exact demand from Asia is unknown but in recent years China has become the largest consumer of ivory products in the world (page 7). In 2012 Chinese wildlife trade official Meng Xianlin suggested that the “current wild population of African elephant could sustain a regular international trade in legally obtained and/or confiscated ivory and meet the Asian demand by supplying 200 tons raw ivory every year.” Whether this relates to the amount of ivory entering China, or China’s projected demand for ivory, is unknown.
Based on statistical trends discerned via data from the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) China’s consumption of ivory has increased in close relation to strengthened consumer spending. Seizures of illicit ivory worldwide have exceeded 25,000 kilograms each year from 2009 through 2013 (page 10) and despite China’s own import restrictions the amount of seized ivory destined for China far exceeds the 5,000 kg (11,000 pounds) China knowingly adds to its market for sale to middle- and upper-income Chinese and wealthy tourists to Macau. In 2016 the amount of illicit ivory seized globally was nearly 40,000 kilograms, a new record.
Japan and Thailand are currently the other major markets for elephant ivory. Japan’s online retailer Rakuten openly permits sale of elephant ivory products (page 2) and also allows advertisements of elephant products on its Japanese website. Environmental non-government organizations such as the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reported that more than 95% of ivory products advertised in Japan were traditional seals called inkan or hanko. Hanko prices range from ¥3,800 to ¥800,000 or $36 to $8,000 (page 7). Luxury ivory products for sale in Japan include traditional instruments with ivory parts for ¥980,000 ($9,575) and ivory guitar accessories for ¥19,800 ($193).
Another current market of regulated ivory is excavated mammoth ivory, primarily from Siberia. Mammoth ivory contributed “95 tons” [sic] (page 21) to the global market in 2012. China is by far the largest importer of this legalized ivory, however the United States, Canada, Germany, South Korea, Thailand, and Singapore also import mammoth ivory directly from Russia (page 21). However mammoth ivory has also been used as a cover to sell illicit elephant ivory in the United States.
Major internet auction houses, search engines, and retailers play a large role in making it easy for consumers to shop for poorly regulated wildlife products. They also allow third-parties to distribute elephant ivory, whale, and dolphin products to Asian consumers. But social media (page 3) is an increasingly common means for sellers of illicit ivory to interface discreetly with their customers and simultaneously reduce the amount of money spent on advertising ivory products. This makes it more difficult for environmental organizations to monitor the types of consumers targeted by marketing and advertising campaigns (page 5).
During 2014 surveys of 935 consumers conducted by WildAid in three of China’s largest cities show an increased awareness compared to 2012 of the illicit nature of elephant ivory. However in the initial survey conducted in 2012 more than half of respondents thought that elephant poaching for ivory was not common. Recently more people saw the poaching of elephants as a problem that is worth correcting through stricter governmental measures (page 10). More than half of respondents to the 2014 survey said they had seen awareness campaigns (page 10) featuring Li Bingbing or Yao Ming and the vast majority of those people said they would not buy ivory.