“Global Implications of the Ivory Trade”–Ben Bryant

Honorable Mention, Non-Fiction


In 1800, approximately twenty-six million elephants grazed the plains of Africa. According to Elaine Larson’s History of the Ivory Trade, the elephant population is estimated to be below one million today. This sharp decline in the elephant population is due to poaching, a lucrative illegal business that has exponentially increased over the years. The ivory trade exploded throughout the 17th-19th centuries because Western countries were using ivory to produce luxury goods. Michele Hollow points out in his article “Tusks for Terrorists” that in 1989 the Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, banned all trade on ivory. According to Elaine Larson, however, in 1999 CITES allowed the sanction sale of ivory bringing about a lessening in restrictions that has brought a resurgence in illegal ivory poaching. The ivory trade is a global issue due to its ties to terrorist groups, international support, as well as a global movement to stop the trade.

Michele Hollow’s online article “Tusks for Terrorists” points out the biggest issue of the ivory trade is that it finances terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab and The Lord’s Resistance Army by providing them with resources to carry out acts of violence. The ivory trade is attractive to these terrorist groups because it generates a significant amount of money. Born Free America, a leader in animal rights studies, and C4ADS, a non-profit that collects data on world security issues, estimates that the ivory trade “generates as much as $1 billion dollars a year” (Hollow). The declining population of elephants due to poaching increases the value of ivory because it is gradually becoming scarcer. In a sense, the ivory trade is a positive feedback loop: the more ivory poached, the fewer live elephants — the supply decreases while price rises. Terrorist groups are so attracted to the ivory trade precisely due to this cycle. Additionally, terrorist groups find it easy to get away with poaching. Ivory poaching mostly occurs in countries that are politically unstable. In some cases, the state government even supports the ivory trade. Varun Vira and Thomas Ewing state in Ivory’s Curse that the Democratic Republic of Congo’s “state security forces patronize the very rebels they are supposed to fight, providing weapons and support in exchange for ivory” (Vira).  The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is not the only country that supports the trade. Somalia, Sudan, and several other African countries profit from the killing of elephants (Hollow). The revenue raised from ivory also allows the rebel groups to be better equipped than the governments fighting them. Laurel Neme differentiates between government soldiers and poachers in her newspaper article “Terrorism and the Ivory Trade”:

The money the Shabaab earns from the black market in ivory allows the group to recruit and pay its soldiers well and consistently. Because of the trade, Shabaab fighters are paid about $300 a month, while those in Somalia’s regular army have often earned far less.

Terrorist groups are not the only factor perpetuating the international ivory trade; countries that actively purchase ivory propagate the business. Christina Russo’s National Geographic article states that “at a 2013 meeting in Bangkok, CITES officials singled out eight countries as instrumental in fueling the illegal ivory trade, either as suppliers, transporters, or consumers: China, Kenya, Malaysia, the Philippines, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, and Vietnam” (Russo). Out of all of these countries, China is the biggest consumer of illegal and legal ivory. China is able to purchase ivory because of CITES’ act in 1999, which allowed the sanctioned sale of ivory to be exported. There are many reasons for China being the biggest consumer of ivory. One reason is that China’s economy is rapidly growing and, from that growth, stems a new wealthy class. Damian Grammaticas’ BBC article “Uncovering China’s Illegal Ivory Trade” explains that this wealthy class drives the demand for ivory because they believe buying ivory is a sign of wealth. Business people in China will gift ivory to other business people to secure deals, and others believe it brings luck (Grammaticas).   Although China purchases ivory from other countries, the country has strict laws prohibiting the ivory trade within its borders. Recently, China publicly destroyed six tons of ivory in an attempt to curb the trade (Grammaticas).  Rather than curbing the business, destroying ivory had the opposite effect. Destroying ivory reduces the availability of the resource, raising prices and thus making it more profitable for sellers and more attractive for investors.

China is not the only country playing a major role in the ivory trade; Thailand is a big component as well. While the eight countries accused of supporting the ivory trade are a big issue, they are also trying to combat the problem by implementing regulations. This is not the case in Thailand. Thailand lacks any sizable evidence of governmental efforts to combat the ivory trade. “According to a report released July 2, 2014, the number of ivory items for sale has nearly tripled in the past 18 months. In January 2013, 61 retail outlets were found selling ivory in previously identified locations around Bangkok. But by May 2014, the same locations had 120 retail outlets selling ivory” (Russo). If Thailand does not create a plan to combat this problem, the country may be threatened with trade sanctions in the near future. The Philippines aid the global market for ivory trade as well.  In a National Geographic story called “Ivory Worship,” Bryan Christy states that in the Philippines “5.4 tons of illegal ivory [were] seized by customs agents in Manila in 2009, 7.7 tons [were] seized there in 2005, and 6.1 tons bound for the Philippines [were] seized by Taiwan in 2006.” That amount of ivory approximately equals 1,745 elephants killed. The Philippines’ soaring amount of ivory in the country is primarily because the country acts as a halfway stop for ivory going to China. The numbers support that countries that import ivory are major reasons for the rampant increase in elephant poaching.

Although the outlook for elephants is bleak, the global community is beginning to take steps to stop the illegal ivory trade. CITES’s creation of the first international ban on the ivory trade is a major step towards eliminating elephant poaching. CITES it is not the only international treaty that pushes to help the elephant population, but local organizations as well. Michele Hollow states that Hillary Clinton announced she will commit eighty million dollars from the Clinton Foundation to try to combat the ivory trade (Hollow). It is a 3-year commitment that tries to solve this issue from the bottom up. Clinton claims that her “commitment will aim to reduce poaching to sustainable levels across 50 protected areas by bolstering the capacity of range countries to protect elephant populations currently experiencing high poaching levels” (Hollow). On top of this, President Obama signed into action the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking on February 11, 2014. The National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking is a plan to assist the United States’ global allies in fighting wildlife trafficking via three key strategies: strengthening enforcement, reducing demand for ivory, and building international cooperation (Hollow).

Elephant populations sharply declined over the last few decades because of the ivory market. Terrorist groups and countries that profit from ivory poaching perpetuate the ivory trade, which makes it difficult to eliminate the trade completely. As the world’s supply of ivory decreases, the demand increases, and the price rises. It is this feedback loop that is the biggest reason why the ivory trade continues today. However, there is hope for elephants as the global community begins to work together to enact stipulations and treaties to stop the ivory trade. With figures like Hillary Clinton and President Obama taking steps to get the ivory trade under control the outlook for the elephant population seems hopeful.


Work Cited

Christy, Bryan. “Ivory Worship.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, Oct. 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

Grammaticas, Damian. “Uncovering China’s illegal ivory trade.” BBC. BBC, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

Hollow, Michele C., and Bryson Hull. “Tusks for Terrorists: Ivory, Elephant Poaching and the War on Terror”   WhoWhatWhy. WhoWhatWhy, 8 July. 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Neme, Laurel, Andrea Crosta, and Nir Kalron. “Terrosim and the Ivory Trade.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Russo, Christina. “Global Wildlife Summit: Fight Against Illegal Ivory Stalled in Thailand.” National Geographic.    National Geographic Society, 9 Jul. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

Stewart, Catrina. “Illegal ivory trade funds al-Shabaab’s terrorist attacks.” The Independent. The Independent, 5 Oct. 2013. Web. 6 Nov 2015.

The History of the Ivory Trade. By Elaine Larson. National Geographic Education. National Geographic, 15 Feb. 2013. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

Vira, Varun, and Thomas Ewing. “Ivory’s Curse.” (n.d.): n. pag. Born Free America and C4ADS, Apr. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.