Elephants face a jumbo threat as ivory poaching rides on ten-fold rise in prices after trade ban

Despite the international ivory trade ban of 1989, poaching associated with the trade is estimated to cause an 8% annual loss in the world elephant population.

                            Elephants face a jumbo threat as ivory poaching rides on ten-fold rise in prices after trade ban

Despite a ban on the international trade in ivory, elephants are still being poached in large numbers owing to a massive increase in ivory prices globally, which is a significant threat to elephant populations, according to researchers. The study - among the first to analyze trends in global ivory market values since commercial international trade was banned in 1989 - states that the worldwide price of ivory has increased tenfold since the ban, and this, in turn, has fuelled poaching activities. According to the researchers, poaching associated with illegal ivory trade is estimated to cause an 8% annual loss in the world elephant population.

“As is the case for any commodity, the ivory trade (and therefore, elephant poaching activity) is driven by demand. Higher ivory market prices lead to higher poaching incentives, and therefore greater numbers of elephants being killed,” says the research team from the University of Bristol Veterinary School, UK. 

Elephants are killed every year for their ivory tusks, and the ivory is often polished and carved into ornaments and jewelry. The ban on international trade was introduced in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) following many years of poaching, which had pushed elephants to the brink of extinction. However, despite the ban, elephants continue to suffer, says the research team. “Almost 600,000 kg of illegal ivory has been seized since 1991. Primarily the product of elephant poaching, these seizures represent the death of approximately 50,000 elephants per year, highlighting the grave effects of the trade on remaining African elephant populations, currently estimated at just over 350,000,” says the paper published in Biological Conservation. 

According to Monique Sosnowski, lead author of the study, poachers are killing an estimated 100 elephants of the remaining 350,000 each day. “Hence, our findings are significant to global wildlife conservation policy-making. Until now, very little has been known about global ivory prices since the international ban in 1989. We hope that a greater understanding of the factors that drive the price of ivory will lead to better-informed policy interventions that lead to a more secure future for the long-term survival of elephants and other animals that suffer due to the ivory trade,” says Sosnowski.

The illegal killing of elephants for ivory remains a significant threat to elephant populations. The ivory is often polished and carved into ornaments and jewelry. (Getty Images)


For their analysis, the researchers used a large dataset of ivory prices collected between 1989 and 2017 from literature searches and visits to ivory markets across Africa, Europe, and Asia, along with information such as ivory product type (raw, polished, carved), weight, region, and legality. Using the data, they were able to determine the factors that drive increases in ivory prices.

The team found since the ban, ivory has become an increasingly valuable commodity, with Asian markets having the highest prices and Africa the lowest. The researchers were able to determine that the global average cost of ivory increased tenfold - approximately 1,019% - between 1989 and 2014, and it appears to be slowly decreasing since. 

The global average price of ivory increased tenfold - approximately 1,019% - between 1989 and 2014, says the research team. (Getty Images)

“Globally, our analysis indicates that prices have been increasing since this ban. Researchers have disagreed on the effect of the ban on elephant poaching. Some argue that it has reduced or reversed the decline in elephant populations by making international trade illegal and by increasing criminal risks for those partaking. Others argue that it has stimulated speculative stockpiling, potentially increasing the price of ivory and encouraging poaching activities to continue. We hope our exploratory analysis can provide some insights into this debate,” says the team.

The study says that factors that influence activity include where in the world the ivory was sold; whether the ivory had been carved or worked in any way; the legality of the sale; and the total volume of ivory that was estimated to have been traded that year.

“The identified price determinants, such as region, product type, legality, and the interactions between region and legality, as well as region and type, may reflect the socio-cultural demand for ivory in its various forms. Regional differences, in particular, should be representative of social and cultural demand. Regional demand for a type of ivory (raw, polished, carved) may be reflective of the more particular market demands, as well as potentially the existence of domestic ivory processing facilities. For example, high prices across Asia are likely reflective of local demand, and distinctly higher prices of carved and polished ivory in East Asia may be indicative of particularly strong demand for these products,” says the study. 

It adds, “Legality may also reflect socio-cultural attitudes towards ivory or regional enforcement activity. Almost equivalent prices for legal and illegal ivory observed in South Asia may be indicative of a disregard of ivory legality or low risk of law enforcement intervention.”

The researchers hope that these findings will lead to better decisions on global ivory policies. They say an understanding of regional price trends and associated demand, alongside a comprehension of which factors influence market price, can inform conservationists, law enforcement, and policymakers on where to focus efforts on anti-trade campaigns, and wildlife conservation.

“Quantitative results from the present study have the potential to contribute to the bioeconomic modeling literature that examines optimal intervention mechanisms related to elephant population management. For example, existing models could be calibrated, tested, and modified with the regional and temporal price trends identified to improve their accuracy. This may add evidence to support decisions concerning the CITES ivory ban and national trade regulations. A similar framework could also be applied to other endangered species experiencing poaching and illegal trade in their products, such as rhinos and tigers, to achieve more orchestrated conservation efforts for global wildlife,” says the team.

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