With 96 elephants killed by poachers every day for ivory and parts, the world needs to support Africa in curbing and eradicating the demand. It’s a slow process but a campaign of more stringent penalties for poachers and enforcing those penalties should help stop the supply. Can an international ban on ivory trade help? Or is the EU right in proposing exemptions to a total ban?

Making a Killing –The Ivory Trade

Making a KillingWe pretty much know that ivory (and rhino horn) funds terrorism and, more than likely, slavery and sex trade. Being able to track the transfer routes within and out of the country (as the National Geographic ivory trades dynamic maps highlight [1]) is a big step in identifying and stopping those at the top of the supply chain.

These are the ones who have the money and provide the temptation to on-the-ground poachers, without whom the trade would not be possible.

This September, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) will meet in South Africa to discuss the proposed ban on all international ivory trade. The EU and (according to Colman O’Criodain –WWF wildlife trade analyst) the WWF are opposed to the ban [7], while African countries, Born Free Foundation, as well as most other well-respected conservation and wildlife trade organizations believe a global ban is the right thing to do.

“Europe says that it wants an extension of the current ivory ban but also backs a system of exemptions included in the ban, which allows exports of some elephant products from the four African states”. [6]

If a total ban does not move forward, what was the point of the actual, symbolic, and emotionally charged stockpile burning in April this year? The aim was to show the world and poachers that there is no value to ivory unless it is on a living elephant; that there is no future trade or chance for future one-off trades in ivory; and that demand for ivory is unacceptable and will NOT be supplied.

Let’s do the math from the perspective of someone at the top of the supply chain for a moment… This is assuming it is just one person at the very top of the tree when we know, of course, that there are quite a few of them.

For those kingpins funding poaching, the risks to themselves have been minimal. Until recently, the penalties amounted only to low fines and rare jail sentences. A caught poacher has no incentive to inform on his employers as they can get back to work almost immediately. And certainly, those at the top are far removed from the risk of any guilt as their hands are free from blood [20].

Despite the tougher penalties under the 2013 Wildlife Act, just 6% of wildlife criminals convicted during 2014-15 received a prison sentence, according to the respected Kenyan non-governmental organisation, WildlifeDirect. “To date no high-level trafficker has been convicted and sentenced by Kenyan courts,” it said in a report looking at more than 500 court cases in 2014 and 2015.” [15]

The Numbers –A Profitable Market…

Let’s now indulge in a rough profit estimation exercise.

  • Local salaries. Let’s say there is a desperate game ranger in SA with a large family to support. Their monthly salary is 6000 Rands. Per year, that’s $5124 / £864 (that’s at the upper end). Note that renting a 1-bed apartment is itself around 6000 Rands per month.
  • Poachers’ salary. Paid a minimum of $66 / £55 per pound of tusk, with a grown elephant’s tusk weighing circa 100 lbs that’s $13,200 / £9981 per elephant. Note that a tusk from an adult male elephant weighs between 100 and 175 pounds, while a tusk from an adult female elephant weighs between 40 and 44 pounds. The heaviest tusk ever recorded weighed in at 220 pounds.
  • Production rate. At 96 elephants killed per day, that is a payout to poachers of $1.2m / £958k per day.
  • Export rate. It can cost about $606 / £459 per pound of ivory. $121,000 / £91,639 per elephant.

Total profit? At 96 killed elephants a day means the kingpin can get at least $11.6m / £9.2m. The costs for local poachers and local transport are minimal.

Risk to the kingpin? Not much, as they’ve put in so many layers, and all they need to do is bury the ivory until the price goes up and then inject the illegal ivory into the trade routes of legal ivory. If the poachers get shot –well, there’s always more to take their place. They are being offered a fortune, and on-the-ground contacts know of a lot of desperate people out there. If there are increased internal problems with the economy and politics, even better then as profit margins will be higher as they’ll do the job for much less!!

Informer risk? Not much (again). The layers in place protect them. Plus, the poachers might be paid danger money. If they do think about informing… well, they understand the threats to them and their family… The local system is so corrupt the kingpins can pay anyone, anywhere, for anything!

That’s $11.6 million PER DAY that can be pocketed by those at the top of the supply chain. OK, less the costs to the poachers, transport costs, hush money costs, etc, but even still, that $11.6m is a conservative figure.

Solutions and Consequences

Feisal Mohamed Ali, dubbed the godfather of the illegal ivory trade, is one such kingpin –one that has made a horrendous bloody profit for many years on the backs of dead elephants. The good news in this case is that he was recently convicted for 20 years and fined 44 million Kenyan shillings ([10],[11]). What happened?

Let’s look at Kenya’s overall strategy first:

  1. Kenya is vocal and maintains a high profile on their stance towards poaching. They have publicly torched their stockpiles of ivory several times in the last decade. They are serious about enforcement and detection, and the message to visitors, ‘ Hands off our Elephants,’ is very clear at the airports and other public areas.
  2. Their government came together towards the same end to take a collaborative approach to define a campaign against anti-poaching.
  3. They imposed tougher penalties and laws at the end of 2013, and from January 2014 they showed the world that they meant business as 1 Chinese smuggler found smuggling a tusk out of the country [13]. Previously penalties and fines were no real deterrents.
  4. They banned ivory trade in 1989 and are actively campaigning for total bans internationally [11].
  5. They enforce their laws with strict policing and other East African countries have followed suit as the National Geographic team found when they presented their fake ivory inserted with GPS ([13] – Chap 4).

Then as far as Feisal Mohamed Ali is concerned, any ivory being transported was illegal. There can’t be any argument of ‘I didn’t know this was illegal’. The policing was stringent and he was caught because of a police raid in Mombasa port.

The international support was also key to catch Feisal Mohamed Ali. A close relationship built with all of East Africa would always have paid dividends here but the fact that Interpol issued an international red notice alert for his arrest cross borders added the nails to his jail coffin [14].

So back to the thought process of a poaching kingpin: “What would a threat to my profit be?”. The answer is simple: Cut off the supply.

If I can’t easily get my product out of the country… If I can’t sell it. If I’m cut off at the knees, my funds dry up and I can’t even pay ground level poachers. I might be able to smuggle a little out but will that be worth my while?

The EU is right in that an international ban on trade will not stop me poaching and smuggling. I’ll always have an avenue to get some of my ivory out but if exemptions are in place I can continue to inject my illegally poached ivory into the legal supply chain. I just have to understand what and when those exemptions will be –and that makes it a lot easier for me and I won’t even have to pay out for bribes! All I need to do is make sure the ivory is buried or hidden for a time until the trail goes cold and then, pay for transport when I’m ready and when I can sell at the best price. Thank you very much!

The Future

An international ban –on its own– will not stop the killing and the illegal trade. But countries can take a leaf out of Kenya’s / East Africa’s book in what they are trying to do to send a message to the world. The Guardian published this year an insightful interview of a couple of former poachers [15]. There is still corruption and the rate of poaching is still too high but for the last 4 years in East Africa the number of elephant deaths has declined [16].

Ultimately, demand needs to stop and so too does the value of ivory. Value in China seems to have dropped a little and may signal a trend [17],but we can’t afford to wait and see if that trend solidifies. Before the wild elephant population is gone for good, if all countries give the message that trade is not tolerated as well as if they impose healthy penalties and fines, then that is one step towards a safer future for these animals and ultimately an economic future for Africa where the safari trade is the countries’ wealth.

Proposing exemptions to an international ban on ivory, or indeed any poached animal parts,  is tantamount to saying that we’re OK with a little bit of senseless slaughter.

If you, like us, believe that a total ban on the trade is the right way to go, please send a message to CITES via the following organizations:

You can also consider attending the global march organized by the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos campaign organization. This event is planned to happen in more than 130 cities worldwide at the time of the CITES conference on September 24th 2016 and will be pushing for a global ban on ivory trade. Find your city event and make your voice heard. One should never underestimate the influence of such manifestations. These events put a definite pressure on governments and institutions… We’ll be there.

If you want to keep on top of the news on this issue, The Guardian is devoting a year on reporting on the progress and the fight against elephant poaching (See: Why the Guardian is spending a year reporting on the plight of elephants).


References and Further Reading

[1] Tracking the Illegal Tusk Trade | Interactive Maps – Elephant ivory is now a key source of funding for armed groups in Central Africa like the Lord’s Resistance Army. National Geography commissioned the creation of artificial tusks with hidden GPS trackers that were planted in the smuggling supply chain. Follow the route…

[2] 96 Elephants (Wildlife Crime Campaign Organization)

[3] The Ivory Trade — Born Free Foundation Ivory Trade Project.

[4] Cost of Living in South Africa

[5] CITES | the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora  — CITES is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

[6] African Wildlife Officials Appalled as EU Opposes a Total Ban on Ivory Trade. Neslen, A. (2016)

[7] The EU is Right to Oppose a Global Ivory Ban. O’Criodain. C, (2016)

[8] European Commission ANNEX to the Proposal for a COUNCIL DECISION  — Annex establishing the position to be adopted on the European Union’s behalf with regard to certain proposals submitted to the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP 17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Johannesburg, South Africa, 24 September – 5 October 2016

[9] Conviction of Feisal Ali Mohammed. AWF (2016)

[10] Earthwise Aware’s Post on the Conviction of Feisal Ali Mohammed (2016)

[11] Kenya to Push for Global Ban on Elephant Ivory Sales. Laing, A. (2016)

[12] Chinese Ivory Smuggler Gets Record Kenyan Fine. (2014)

[13] How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa. Christy, B. (2015) — Armed groups help fund operations by smuggling elephant ivory. Can fake tusks with hidden GPS trackers thwart them?

[14] Interpol Issues Arrest Warrant for Mombasa Businessman Feisal Ali Mohamed over Illegal Ivory Trade. (2014)

[15] Kenya’s New Front in Poaching Battle: ‘the Future is in the Hands of our Communities’. Vaughan, A. (2016)

[16] African Elephants Still in Decline Due to High Levels of Poaching. CITES Press Release (2016)
— Poaching levels continue to pose an immediate risk to the survival of African elephants with the overall poaching trends in 2015 showing the Africa-wide elephant populations still in decline, with serious threats to populations in Central and West Africa, and some improvements in parts of Eastern Africa

[17] Ivory Price Drop in China Signals Fall in Demand, Report Says. Agence France-Presse (2015)

[18] Why the Guardian is Spending a Year Reporting on the Plight of Elephants. van der Zee, B. (2016)

[19] Seventeenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties Johannesburg (South Africa), 24 September – 5 October 2016 | Working Document on Trade in Hunting Trophies of Species Listed on Appendix II

[20] Exclusive Interview With An Elephant Poacher. Messenger, S. (2014)

References Addendum

As we are following the press before the CITES Cop 17 meeting, below we are providing you with further information that has been released between the publication of our article and the meeting.

[21] Why Some Countries Don’t Want to Do More to Protect Elephants. Cruise, A. (2016)

Light Sharan with big iconSept 1st 2016 | by Sharan Bahra

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