The Ivory Trade – a destructive addiction

Ivory elephant tusk

So far this year, approximately $69 billion and rising has been spent on illegal drugs. In contrast, the illegal ivory trade is worth $10 billion a year and ‘as much as 70% of illegal ivory goes to China.’ Eventually the ivory is fashioned into expensive ornaments, chopsticks and jewellery. For those who can buy it, possessing ivory is an automatic  –  albeit vacuous –  status symbol. 

An international ban on the trade of ivory was put into place in 1989. As recently as 2017, the Chinese government put a ban on all ivory trade in China. However, it’d be complacent to believe that these measures have curbed and strangled the illegal trade. The sentence in China for drug trafficking is capital punishment. For poaching and trading ivory, the strictest punishment is life imprisonment. 

Within our own legal systems we are presented with an ethical and legal dilemma concerning whether we should prosecute those in the illegal ivory trade the same as those who traffic drugs. Moreover, who exactly do we prosecute? The farmers? The buyers? The consumers? 

A vast web representing drug trafficking reveals the true extent of the trade – it isn’t simply about accumulating money and keeping people hooked. It’s an intricate trail that leads back to countless struggling farmers who strive to earn for survival, right through to the cartels in Colombia and Mexico, then to corruption in merchant shipping and strategic ports, to the drug dealers, the runners and the users. Not only does the drug trade continue to grow bigger and more creative, adapting around increasingly authoritarian countermeasures, but the social issues that arise from the trade become worse. Hand in hand with drug trafficking goes sex trafficking, prostitution, government corruption, terrorism, and collateral damage on the normal citizen. To be clear, there are layers of complexity surrounding drug legalisation, legislation, and the extent to which criminalising drug users and the market itself actually produces much of the associated crime. The crux of the point here is that one illicit set of products is harshly restricted and stigmatised, whilst the other is less of a focal point for legislators and the public.

The Ivory Trade in depth

The illegal ivory trade (or wild animal trade trade in general) poses its own unique ethical and social repercussions. The ivory trade is worth only about ⅛ of the drug trade, yet that doesn’t account for the value of the product from which the ivory comes from – the elephant and rhino. Like the drug trade, the illegal ivory trade is as messy and web like. Ivory is sourced from war torn and famined countries like Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. At this source, mapping the illegal trade will take us transnationally, like the drug trade. It fuels, among many others, sectarian violence, terrorism, corruption, syndicates, extortion, debt, sex trafficking, political duplicity, drug and arms trafficking, slavery and the destruction of precious ecosystems, which in turn leads to a downturn in agriculture and farming. Furthermore, the dedicated work of the brave rangers who protect these species put themselves directly into the firing line of poachers. On April 25th 2020, 12 rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo were killed trying to protect the wild animals in one of the most biologically diverse national parks on earth. The human cost isn’t just abstract and societal, but intimate and personal too.

The most damaging part of the trade is the commodification of animals and nature. Our insatiable appetite for the rare and exotic,  whether it’s to brag, to entertain or to compensate for a lack in personal life, shows the inherent desire to find meaning through self-validation, often derived from consumption. It is no new idea to pick apart the flaws of a consumerist culture, but when extinction of intelligent, remarkable animals is mixed in, the situation becomes grave.

Furthermore, disrupting this type of attitude is almost impossible when a large proportion of people depend on breeding wild animals to support their livelihood, and it appears there is a slippery slope towards lucrative but illicit trading. In the 1990s, fishermen from Fujian and Guangdong provinces in China emigrated to Mozambique. China already had a strong hold on local timber there and recognised a new, lucrative market within the sea cucumber industry. Growth for these fishermen was inevitable, but once they realised that ivory was more fruitful, the Shuidong syndicate emerged – a major Chinese criminal led ivory smuggling organisation, which has since been dismantled.

Alternatives, Ethics and Sustainability

Prospecting for profit-making ventures is nothing new; a basic fact of capitalism is that expansion and growth often leads to unethical business practices, spurred on by the profit motive. To accommodate demand, like the drugs trade, the ivory trade is an ambitiously creative business. The issue therein is that the authenticity of the product being traded is drawn into question. There are alternatives to ivory that bear similar aesthetic qualities, without the associated risks and damages of poaching, yet the drive for authentic, yet cruelly obtained product, remains. The bodhi seed (Pu Ti Zi), a general term for ivory-adjacent plant-based alternatives, are often used for making prayer beads.  The ivory nut in particular,  which is originally sourced in South America, has remarkable resemblance to ivory. While a bodhi seed is not necessarily a symbol of status, though certainly an ethical alternative, it is doubtful that these alternatives could ever eclipse the ivory trade.

The issue with Ivory is that it, like other animal-derived products, from tiger pelts to pangolin scales, the death of endangered species is a compulsory part of the trade. There’s no ethical way to manage such an embedded cultural trade, other than attempting to stamp it out altogether – which is where drug and ivory trading legislation differ.                  

While Europe and the USA tackle the idea of legislation for a legal drug trade – which would all in all be ethically sustainable, regulated and hopefully reduce the consequences rendered by the illegal drug trade – the ivory trade simply is not sustainable. Moreover, it shouldn’t be sustainable.

The irony of supply and demand is that the less we supply, the higher the price on a limited commodity. After banning the illegal ivory trade, prices swelled tenfold depending on the location of the market and whether the ivory had been dressed. According to a survey done by the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), after the ban, buyers of ivory tended to be middle income males, while before the ban it tended to be females who travelled occasionally outside of China. Interpreting the data more shows that the trend for dissuasion of purchasing ivory goes hand in hand with progressive legal action in the justice system. The dilemma continues. While it is absolutely unethical and unsustainable to farm elephants for their ivory, the ban on ivory will continue to see inflated prices, overall ramping up the demand for ivory thus killing more elephants – 30,000 elephants a year are killed.

Awareness Fuels Change

There is some hope; at least for the short term. The global phenomenon of the COVID-19 pandemic has actually presented positive effects on the environment. Global pollution levels were at an all time low, wildlife was liberated and some even suggest that the rate of sexual diseases has fallen. The virus has fueled a clamp down on the wildlife trade as a whole; in China, laws that were made over twenty years ago have been amended in order to ban trading exotic and endangered animals. Yet, these amended laws remain a little perfunctory: a suggestion that the re-categorisation of ‘wild’ animals to ‘domestic’, will not only perpetuate and further nuance the trade, but will add more legal misery to efforts on activism. There is no illusion that the government took the measures to control the infection and reduce the effects on their economy and global reputation. While the new laws are significant, “…the political will and capacity to enforce those laws often lags, undermining global efforts to curb issues like wildlife trafficking, air pollution and climate change.” Tourism in sub-Saharan countries has decreased due to COVID-19, yet there is a recorded surge in rhino horn demand in Asia, apparently an ingredient that can help cure the virus. The next offensive is to pressure Japan into outlawing ivory, which is largely traded through China, now making Japan the world’s largest market for ivory.

Our roles in combating both drug and ivory trades are very small, yet a role we must play. 

One of the fortuitous consequences of education is awareness – after awareness hopefully comes dissemination of knowledge. The expression it only takes a spark to make a forest fire should be our mantra, not for destruction, but for the spreading of the urgent message to stand up against the barbaric, illegal ivory trade. The drugs and ivory trade need no comparison, they exist on an equal par and are equally destructive. Both trades make fat cats fatter, and the ones at the bottom suffer.  One voice can multiply a thousand fold, one action can be contagious. We must work towards a trade of positive action and transparency, bringing the corrupt to face due justice and prosecute them duly. 


Shmuel is a poet, screenwriter and English language teacher.

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