Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


african-elephant

Male African bush elephant. (PHOTO: STEVE GARVIE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Economics of Illegal Ivory

• November 20, 2013 • 8:00 AM

Male African bush elephant. (PHOTO: STEVE GARVIE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says destroying ivory can reduce supply and demand at same time.

In a visually dramatic display, designed to attract as much press attention as possible, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed its entire stockpile of illegal ivory tusks and carvings, confiscated over the past 25 years. “Some six tons of ivory were pulverized by an industrial rock crusher in front of some of the world’s most influential conservationists,” proclaimed a FWS press release last week. It said that the event, which took place at a wildlife refuge outside Denver, sent “a clear message that the nation will not tolerate wildlife crime that threatens to wipe out the African elephant and a host of other species around the globe.”

A previous post about the fight against rhino poaching referenced the debate over whether legalization and regulation of the horn and ivory market could potentially increase supply and lower prices. The FWS has made a loud and clear statement here about which side of the debate it lands on. But why? A devil’s advocate approach: Reducing supply typically increases demand, yes? Won’t destroying all this ivory make the rest of the ivory that’s still on the market more expensive, and therefore give poachers even more motivation to continue their deadly trade? For instance, what if, instead of crushing it, the FWS could sell off its stockpile in some type of regulated way, and flood the market in the process?

“We get asked that question all the time,” says Gavin Shire, public affairs specialist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He goes on to explain why basic supply-and-demand analyses are insufficient here.

The FWS hopes that the highly-publicized crush will inspire other countries to do the same with their stockpiles, and to start public awareness campaigns there about the impact of the trade.

First, the FWS would not be allowed to sell the ivory products, anyway; what the department has stockpiled, it seized in the first place because it was being sold illegally. (Some antique ivory is legal to sell, with the proper permits, but this ivory was new, and had been poached.) If it’s illegal for poachers and dealers, then it should be illegal for government departments and agencies, too. Zero tolerance means zero tolerance.

Second, as to the supply-demand question, Shire says that whether this particular portion were in play or not, it wouldn’t actually make any financial difference to the market either way. This stockpile certainly looks impressive, going through a giant rock crusher, but it is actually relatively small, Shire says. “Flooding the market” artificially would be nearly impossible, considering the sheer size of that market.

Shire says he can’t accurately calculate how many elephants died to provide those six tons of ivory, captured over 25 years, but it may be something like one or two thousand at most. Compare that to the estimated 30,000 elephants that are poached every year. (The Wildlife Conservation Society says that 96 elephants are killed every day.) “That’s 60,000 tusks coming on to the market every year,” Shire says. “So we’re not going to make a dent in that.”

So, if they can’t sell the ivory, and it wouldn’t make a difference if they did, but they keep on seizing it, FWS agents figured they might as well destroy it—and make a big show of it in the process. “These stockpiles of ivory fuel the demand,” said FWS director Dan Ashe at the event last week. But crushing the stockpile in front of a throng of politicians and reporters—that can start a valuable conversation.

The FWS also hopes that the highly-publicized crush will inspire other countries to do the same with their stockpiles, and to start public awareness campaigns there about the impact of the trade. Shire says that this awareness has gradually spread in the U.S. over the decades, but affluent collectors in China and elsewhere have kept the market alive. America, unfortunately, still plays a large role in illegal import and export of ivory, as well.

“We can try to stem the supply through law enforcement, but ultimately, you really have to find a way to reduce the demand, and that’s probably going to be done through education,” Shire says. “There are still huge misconceptions in some parts of the world that elephants are somehow anesthetized and their tusks are cut off and then they regrow, or that they fall out naturally. But elephants are killed horrifically and mutilated for people to get their tusks.”

To that end, the FWS has plans to build the pulverized ivory pieces and dust into educational displays and place them in museums and zoos. The FWS hopes that the displays will act as memorials to elephants lost, and that they will help spark conversation about the true cost of ivory.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

More From Lauren Kirchner

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.