It's an unlikely and ambitious government project: Over the next two years, Hong Kong will embark on the world's largest ivory burn, setting 28 tons of illegally harvested tusks aflame to signal a shift in its valuation of elephants. As National Geographic reports, this is actually the latest in a string of public ivory disposals around the world. China crushed six tons of tusks and ivory ornaments on January 6; the United States smashed six tons in November 2013; and the Philippines burned five tons in June 2013, making history as the first "ivory-consuming nation" to destroy almost all of its national stock. Gabon burned its stockpile in June 2012.
All this comes after elephant poaching and ivory smuggling reached unprecedented levels in 2011, a year in which at least 25,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks, according to a statistician involved in monitoring illegal elephant killings. By early 2013, terms like "blood ivory" and "African Elephant Crisis" were on the lips of conservationists and politicians alike.
That's about when the U.S. embarked on a period of frenzied activity to combat the ivory trade. In July, President Obama established a task force on wildlife trafficking and committed $10 million for anti-poaching and anti-smuggling efforts in Africa. A few months later, Hillary Clinton announced a separate $80-million, three-year program aimed at "stamping out" elephant poaching and the ivory trade. Claiming that African forest elephants could be extinct within 10 years unless the poaching stopped, Clinton characterized the situation not only as "an ecological disaster" but also as a threat to political and economic stability throughout Africa and Asia. In November, amid hundreds of cameras and reporters, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulverized six tons of elephant ivory—a stockpile accumulated over 24 years of domestic law-enforcement seizures.
China soon followed suit—a particularly big deal because the country has been the world's largest consumer of illegal ivory for the past decade. And now Hong Kong is getting in on the action as well, as are some European countries. Still, it's worth keeping in mind that ivory-burning isn't an entirely new trend. Kenya took the first major stand against the ivory trade back in 1989 by torching 12 tons of elephant tusks in Nairobi National Park. The country's president, Daniel arap Moi, lit the flames himself. "I appeal to people all over the world to stop buying ivory,'' he told the press.
The gesture came at a time when elephants were not yet classified as endangered, and the United States and Tanzania were just beginning to float the idea of banning ivory trading. The Kenyan government recognized that preserving the country's elephants could be essential for preserving tourism. Poaching had gotten so bad that some wild areas looked more like elephant graveyards, littered with piles of bleached bones, than living habitats.
A few months later, much to Kenya's credit, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a multilateral treaty, implemented a global ban on ivory trading. It worked—for a little while, at least. Even though a handful of countries (Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) claimed exemptions to the ban, ivory prices plummeted and the number of elephants in Africa slowly increased over the next 10 years.
Then, in 1999, CITES allowed Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to sell 50 tons of stockpiled ivory to Japan—a "one-time," "experimental" sale. But then China wanted to buy some, too (and Japan wanted more). Before allowing another sale, though, CITES decided to monitor the after-effects of the 1999 transaction: Had elephant poaching or smuggling gone up as a result? As National Geographic reporter Bryan Christy explains, this may not have been the smartest study ever conducted. (Christy has been investigating illegal wildlife trafficking for years, and his coverage of the ivory trade is essential reading.)
In Christy's words, "CITES had approved the sale and had then set about constructing a way to gauge its impact, which is a bit like pushing the button to test the first atomic bomb and then building a device to measure the explosion." CITES tried to count elephant carcasses and monitor seizures of smuggled ivory—but those are both difficult things to do, and neither one provides a reliably accurate measure of whether more or less poaching and smuggling is occurring.
The graph below presents some of the data collected by CITES, in collaboration with other international organizations, to make inferences about illegal ivory trafficking based on large-scale law-enforcement seizures of smuggled ivory.
"Smugglers don’t file sales reports," writes Christy, so CITES uses ivory seizures as a "proxy" for smuggling activity. In the graph above, 1998 is the "baseline" because that's the year before the "experimental" ivory sale to Japan. The chart shows that the frequency of illegal trafficking roughly tripled between 1998 and 2011. But it's possible that it actually quadrupled, or only doubled. As Christy puts it:
Even as a proxy, seizures are tricky. They accurately tell you only the bare minimum of illegal activity going on in a country, and there’s a lot they can’t tell you. More ivory seizures in one year can mean that smuggling has increased, or that law enforcement is working harder, or both. Fewer seizures can mean what you might hope, but they can also mean that law enforcement is on the take. Big-time smugglers have connections in local wildlife departments, customs offices, and freight-forwarding and transportation companies that enable them to move multi-ton shipments from one country to another. (In the Philippines, for example, ivory traders I met accused customs officers of seizing illegal ivory only when someone hadn’t made a payoff.) Worst of all, a seizures-based system rewards countries for confiscating ivory, when what they really need to do is follow smuggled ivory up the demand chain to the kingpins, a reason good investigators consider seizures to be bad law enforcement.
One element of the "transaction index" that's probably accurate is the dramatic increase in trafficking between 2009 and 2011. That's because in 2008, CITES let Chinese and Japanese traders buy over 100 tons of ivory in another "strictly supervised," "one-time" sale. CITES, not to mention a host of other organizations that endorsed the sale, believed this move could curb poaching. The Chinese, so the thinking went, would flood their domestic market with low-priced, legal ivory, which would presumably undercut the black market. Instead, China raised ivory prices and limited the supply by releasing just a few tons of the legal ivory each year. Rather than undercutting the black market, the Chinese government was outperforming it. As a result, smuggling actually increased.