THE IMPACTS ON LEVELS OF ILLEGAL KILLING OF ELEPHANTS SINCE THE CLOSURE OF CHINA’S DOMESTIC TRADE IN IVORY

WRITTEN BY DR HARVEY ROSS NATURAL RESOURCE ECONOMIST

The impacts on levels of illegal killing of elephants since the closure of China’s domestic market in 2017

Since 2015, when Chinese authorities first started to talk about imposing a domestic ivory ban (following on from then-US-president Obama indicating that the US would close its market), we saw ivory prices starting to fall. They peaked at about $1,200/kg in 2014 and the latest available data suggests prices for raw ivory at roughly $700/kg. 

The latter is still a lot of money, however, the risk: reward ratio remains loaded in favour of poaching. Thus, as expected, we have seen a significant slowing in the rate of poaching since 2014, but the levels of poaching remain high. 

The relationship between the ivory price and elephant poaching remains complex. It was evidently positive that China acted to close its domestic trade. It is pointless to impose an international ban but allow domestic trade, as that simply creates an incentive to illegally move ivory into a country with a large domestic market. Border anti-trafficking enforcement costs are simply too high when a legal domestic trade undermines a global legal trade. The problem remains, though, that if only the largest domestic markets close down but neighbouring markets remain open, then the problem is reduced but also displaced. 

For elephant poaching to stop entirely, the market value of ivory has to be eliminated.[1] That can only be achieved through global collective action – elephant range states act simultaneously to dispose of ivory stockpiles and stop signalling to the market that they intend to sell ivory; countries demanding ivory need to stop consuming it. 

Even if this occurred, however, the problem of stockpiling ivory remains. The disjunct between online ivory sales data and seizure data had indicated that organised criminal groups were likely stockpiling ivory for various reasons. We suspect that this was because they were ‘banking on extinction’ – literally funding poaching to create private ivory stockpiles, which they could then drip feed to the market once elephants had become extinct, or a legal trade reignited (or both). Domestic ivory bans should therefore be indefinite and complete. Unfortunately, if range states keep talking about selling their ivory, the incentive for stockpiling remains.[2]


[1] Chris Alden and Ross Harvey, ‘The case for burning ivory’, Project Syndicatehttps://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/kenya-ivory-stockpile-destruction-by-chris-alden-and-ross-harvey-2016-04, accessed 1 June 2022. 

[2] Ross Harvey, Chris Alden, and Yu Shan Wu, “Speculating a Fire Sale: Options for Chinese Authorities in Implementing a Domestic Ivory Trade Ban,” Ecological Economics 141 (2017): 22–31, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.05.017.

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