Does Burning Ivory Save Elephants?

by Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes

This week marks the 62nd meeting of the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), taking place in Geneva, Switzerland. To coincide with this meeting, the World Wildlife Fund has released a “Wildlife Crime Scorecard” report which lists 23 countries in Asia and Africa that it claims could all do more to enforce trade bans intended to protect tigers, rhinos, and elephants.

But what about WWF’s scorecard? Unlike the governments it assesses, WWF has specifically purported to protect endangered species since its inception in 1961. It has also mostly endorsed the CITES trade ban approach to saving tigers, rhinos, and elephants for more than the last two decades, but the results of this have been unimpressive. Tiger numbers have plummeted, as have rhino numbers in all but a handful of former range states; elephants have fared slightly better since the ivory ban, but poaching is on the rise again. So while WWF can claim some individual successes with certain localized conservation projects, its broader policies on wildlife trade deserve closer scrutiny to see if they make sense.

For example, last month WWF commended the government of Gabon for burning a stockpile of almost 5 tons of confiscated ivory, estimated to represent the equivalent death of 850 elephants. Presumably the architects of this event think they can repeat the performance of the Kenyan government, which famously burned a pile of ivory (and rhino horn) back in 1989.

Kenya’s dramatic gesture had three effects:  First, as a media stunt it caught the attention of many people and helped to stigmatize the use of ivory products in the West. Second, this in turn appeared to reduce consumer demand (and therefore prices and the incentive to poach elephants). And third, Kenya was able to leverage this event as a means to raise significant donor funding.  (The funding benefits did not endure and other African elephant range states did not benefit in this way; instead many had to bear the cost of forgone ivory sales harvested from sustainably-managed populations.)

That was then, this is now. Ivory demand in East Asian markets has a deeper cultural imprint and was far less impacted by any stigma effect from the 1989 ban. With the rising affluence of East Asian consumers, black market prices and elephant poaching levels are increasing significantly.

Economists may disagree about many things, but one thing we do agree on is that if you reduce the supply of a product without a corresponding reduction in demand, prices will rise. In a 1990 peer-reviewed journal article*, economist Ted Bergstrom explains clearly why: If the goal is to protect threatened species, it does not make sense to destroy confiscated stockpiles, but rather to sell them back into the market to satisfy demand and restrain prices. If trade is already banned and consumers are still buying ivory, there is no reason to believe that reducing the supply will change their preferences. So burning ivory stockpiles at this time does not seem like such a great idea. Although intended to send out a message about the acceptability of buying ivory, this gesture may simply send out a different message to the market: that ivory is an increasingly scarce resource worthy of speculative investment.

WWF’s approach of constricting supplies is not restricted to elephants. It adopts similar policies toward tiger and rhino products. The same principles apply here and the black market values for such products only appear to be rising over time, with disastrous consequences for wild populations.

* Ted Bergstrom. “On the Economics of Crime and Confiscation.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 4.3 (1990): 171-178.

Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes is an environmental economist based in South Africa and a 2012 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow. He is the author of Who Will Save the Wild Tiger? (1998, PERC Policy Series), a contributor to Tigers of the World: The Science, Politics, and Conservation of Panthera tigris (2010, Academic Press), and author of the recent PERC Case Study “Saving African Rhinos: A Market Success Story.” For more, visit his website:


  1. Great piece. And you’re right, it makes no sense to stake the future of elephants on the hope that East Asian consumers will greatly reduce their demand of ivory. An even if per capita demand goes down, world population is booming. Why not instead have a centralized seller held to a high standard by the NGOs?

  2. So what you want is for the ban on iv pry trade to be lifted. That means they will just finish the few remaining elephants here in east africa. I don’t agree with you. if that’s where you are going.

    • It seems far more complex than that. Isn’t extinction where these species are already heading? There just isn’t enough money going to enforcement. Couldn’t some sort of legal ivory clearing house better satisfy demand and direct money back to enforcement?

  3. Mark, I guess you belong to the school of thought who think that the problem of drugs would be solved by legalizing cocaine and its likes. I’m if it was that simple, the likes of US and UK will have towed that line. Legalising the Ivory trade is not a panacea. Enforcement has its challenges, but I believe it’s better than creating the kind of market you advocate here.

  4. Mike. Your sentiment of ‘its an economic problem that needs an economic solution’ is far more sensible than the dated ineffective emotional arguments that are driving animals (especially rhino) closer to extinction. We have tried their way and I think we need to try another way!

  5. Esther, for the record, I am not advocating a legal ivory trade here. I acknowledge that the problem is complex. The problem with elephants is that in many countries they are ‘open access property’: local people typically receive few to no benefits from live elephants and often view them as a nuisance; yet they can get a very tangible and immediate benefit from selling ivory and whoever kills the elephant first gets the benefit. The long term solution must somehow involve creating a sense of ownership of live elephants among local people, such that they perceive (and also actually receive) tangible economic benefits from keeping them around. My main point, for now, is that burning ivory stockpiles at this time will most likely do nothing more than drive up the black market price of ivory – and this will make dead elephants even more economically valuable than live ones.

  6. Kenneth Buk says:

    Michael, under which circumstances can a legal trade rather than a ban work in favour of an endangered species? It seems to me that white rhino is one of the better cases: 1)practically all individiduals are relatvely well monitored, so legal harvest is cheaper and associated with lower risk than illegal harvest, 2) ownership is established, so sales revenue is likely to actually accrue to the responsible conservation body, 3) population size is probably large enough to satisfy demand, even if there should be some speculative purchases based on expected extinction and 4) the resource harvest is renewable and non-lethal, in the sense that horns can harvested without even killing the rhino. But is it always better to have a legal market than a ban? If not, what criteria must be fulfilled for legal trade to play a positive role?

    • Ken, chances are best when: 1) the species in question is terrestrial and non-migratory, 2) biological growth / production rates are higher than economic growth rates, 3) the discount rate is not too high (this relates to political instability, etc), and 4) institutions are strong / property rights are well-defined and secure (i.e. ownership is clearly established, as per your post). You are on the right track! No, it is not better to have a ‘legal market’ if institutions are weak (i.e. property rights poorly defined and enforced). So the main criterion that must be fulfilled for legal trade to play a positive role is the presence of strong and stable institutions (a relatively stable society with formal institutions (laws and regulations) that are congruent with informal institutions (local customs and culture) and therefore known and respected by most of society (including those responsible for enforcement!).

      • Kenneth Buk says:

        That is also the gut feeling I have. Again, several of these factors point towards rhinos presenting the most conducive scenario, which could be tried first before other less suitable vulnerable or endangered animals are subjected to legalising of trade. I would like to understand more of this, partly because I am working with cheetahs, for which there is a full spectrum of black, grey and white markets. Can you recommend any literature? Pls send to

  7. We are in an age once again where the World revovles around money,this is nothing new.I am greatly thankfull that there are people out there working on conservation and can only hope that with the correct education there will be more like minded souls in the future who will put a stop to this rot in the future