Will destroying ivory provoke more poaching?

If poaching is to be stopped, China has to end the legal trade in ivory, banning all sales, say campaigners

In January China destroyed 6.1 tonnes of confiscated ivory. In early February France followed suit, destroying more than three tonnes of ivory at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

The official view is that such public acts show poachers the authorities are determined to strike against the illegal ivory trade and protect the ever-dwindling population of elephants.

But the opposite may be happening. Investigations have found that in China the destruction of ivory has sent prices higher – and that’s bad news for the elephants.

One seller at an ivory stall in Beijing’s Tianya Antique Market commented that “the government’s destruction of its ivory stocks has actually done us some good.” He explained that while smaller merchants were finding it harder to source quality goods, the larger ones still had suppliers and were benefiting from higher prices.

Scarcity means higher prices, which can also, say ivory trade experts, lead to more poaching.

Writing in the South China Morning Post, ivory trade researchers Dr Brendan Moyles and Dr Dan Stiles said that “destroying ivory could increase prices and criminal profits…What’s more, higher prices will prompt more poaching.” They went on to say that “destroying stockpiles is risky. Advocates say it sends a message to poachers and smugglers that the black market in ivory is over. This is a fantasy…The real message we’re sending is that we’re giving them control over the market.”

Other ivory trade experts agreed. Deputy professor Zhang Li of Beijing Normal University told chinadialogue that China’s first public destruction of ivory was mainly symbolic. If the slaughter of elephants is to be stopped, he said, all trade in ivory should be banned. This is especially the case with China, continued professor Li, as ivory is still a popular product, particularly amongst more affluent classes.

“The existence of a legal ivory trade sends the wrong signal and greatly increases demand, as well as fostering new markets," says Li. "Looking at the illegal ivory products seized now, many are ivory bracelets or necklaces made from other ivory items.”

China says the market in ivory is permitted in order to “continue and protect the craft of ivory-carving.” Xie Yan, a zoologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told chinadialogue that “The State Forestry Administration has always said an ivory market is needed to protect the ivory-carving craft. Animal conservationists have always called for a comprehensive ban on the ivory trade, but it doesn’t look likely.”

“As long as there’s business, there’ll be killing. Is that craft really necessary? It isn’t necessary for humanity to survive, but it might result in the extinction of a species,” says Li. “It’d be easy to find some other material to carve.”

Peter Knights of San Francisco-based NGO Wildaid told the media that “if poaching is to be stopped, China has to end the legal trade in ivory, banning all sales.”