Ivory Stockpiles: Should We Burn Them and If So Why?

French Customs with the illegal ivory stockpile before crushing and burning it. Image from: Remy de la Mauviniere/ AP

France was in the news on Thursday for destroying all three tonnes of its illegal ivory stocks. The aim of this was to send a clear message to those involved in wildlife crime: the illegal trade in ivory will not be tolerated. So why do countries have ivory stockpiles?

Ivory and rhino horn were banned from international trade by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989. Since then countries haven’t know what to do with ivory and rhino horn which they have confiscated, so they’ve formed it into stockpiles. It should be noted that the ban was temporarily removed to permit stockpiles from certain African countries to be sold off in 1999 and 2008.

The second sale of ivory is seen by many as a massive mistake. The supports of the sale argued that the selling of stockpiles was no bad thing, flooding the market with ivory should lower prices. Many people use ivory as a status of wealth, if it suddenly becomes less valuable then demand from the rich should decrease. However, from what can be seen this did not happen. Buyers in destination countries such as Japan and China saw the sale as a signal that ivory was now readily available. The demand for ivory and rhino horn has increased rapidly since 2008, along with the poaching rate. If the illegal trade is not reduced soon, then rhinos and elephants are looking at extinction in the not too distant future. 

So should we burn stockpiles? There isn’t a great history on stockpiles being stored securely. In many countries officials are tempted by bribes as they simply don’t earn much, resulting in them sneaking out ivory and rhino horn from the stockpiles to sell to dealers. In one case an entire stockpile was stolen and replaced with plastic replicas so it looked like nothing had gone missing. Some are keeping hold of stockpiles in the hope that CITES will allow another sale, and there are certainly those petitioning for this to happen. The money earned from these sales is meant to go back into elephant and rhino conservation, but it still isn’t clear whether that happened in either 1999 or 2008. I think they would have to guarantee the money went to conservation for another sale to be approved.

I just hope that the burning of stockpiles at the moment, and the subsequent media coverage, really does have an impact on the illegal trade. In my opinion though, stockpiles just shouldn’t be allowed. As a friend pointed out to me, it’s like keeping hold of a bunch of gold and not expecting someone to steal it. In fact the price of ivory and rhino horn is often more than the price of illegal diamonds and gold. So if I could have my way, I would simply burn any ivory or rhino horn that was found to be illegal straight away to remove the temptation. I say ‘found to be illegal’ because hunting of elephant and rhino in some countries is still allowed, but only if you have a permit. The tusks and horn can then be taken back as hunting trophies, however they are often illegally sold. My thoughts on that can be found here. In conclusion, I think yes we definitely need to burn ivory stockpiles and any more ivory that is found, straight away.