A game warden passes stacked elephant tusks at the National Parks of Zimbabwe headquarters in Harare. (European Pressphoto Agency)

Everyone talks about the scourge of elephant poaching that fuels the illegal sale of ivory. But Zimbabwe and Namibia have enormous stockpiles of legal ivory from elephants that died of natural causes over many years. The stockpiles are worth a fortune.

For now, they can’t sell the ivory because of a worldwide ban set in 1989 by an international convention that protects elephants and other animals. At the next meeting of the group in Johannesburg in September, the two southern African nations will press a proposal to lift the prohibition. Yet a study released Monday says that could be a risky move in the bid to save the few African elephants that remain.

Eight years ago, after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) allowed a one-time sale of legal ivory from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana on an experimental basis, elephant poaching shot up by 66 percent, and black market trafficking increased by 71 percent, the study says.

Researchers Solomon Hsiang and Nitin Sekar analyzed years of data from Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants, a system operated by CITES, to reach these findings. While they acknowledge that both are estimates, they point to how closely the percentage for poaching corresponds with the percentage for trafficking.

CITES created the monitoring system to track the severity of poaching at 79 sites in Africa and Asia, where smaller-species elephants also exist. The effort developed a poaching index called the Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants, which basically counts the carcasses of illegally slain elephants where park rangers and other police patrols find them.

The records were “the entire key,” said Hsiang, a public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “That’s the whole reason we were able to do this. As economists, we’re interested in all sorts of black markets. It’s really hard for governments to understand how these markets function. We have a whole record of everything that happens.”

The slaughter of elephants through hunting and poaching is a problem that is more than a century old, but the latest spike — 100,000 elephants killed over three years ending in 2014 — left world leaders and conservationists searching for an explanation. Some blamed the expansion of the Chinese economy, with its explosion of new millionaires in a part of the world that covets carved ivory as artwork. Hsiang, however, says the data did not back that up.


Erik Mararv, the manager of the Garamba National Park in Congo, is photographed against a poster backdrop of elephants while recuperating from injuries received in a firefight with elephant poachers. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

“We tested many of those theories,” he said. “We don’t see any dramatic change in the number of Chinese employees in African countries where elephants live. When we look at the data, almost all the rise of poaching originated with this 2008 sale.”

A flood of fresh legal ivory into markets in China as well as Japan provided a perfect cover for the sale of illegal ivory, according to the new study, which is currently under peer review by a journal for future publication. Together, individuals in those two countries purchased more than 100 tons at a 2008 auction of approved sellers. China vowed to vigorously police the trade and required a license and permit to sell legal ivory. But investigations by authorities showed that merchants slipped the permits off legal ivory once it was sold and placed it on illegal ivory.

A 2014 report by The Washington Post studied arrests and prosecutions to show how art dealers hired African smugglers to bribe officials into slipping poached ivory into legal shipments to airports around the world, including John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. An understaffed contingent of wildlife customs officers there couldn’t hope to find it all and admitted that most smuggled ivory and other wildlife goods probably slips by.

The officers did follow individuals who were eventually caught making deliveries in New York City, Philadelphia and Virginia. Ivory was sold to unsuspecting buyers and criminals who took it as far as California.

The United States, which has a reputation for having the world’s toughest wildlife trafficking laws and punishment, just cracked down even harder with a near-total federal ban on ivory’s sale across state borders. Similarly harsh bans on sales already exist in New York, California and Hawaii, the states with the largest markets for ivory. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said recently that the federal ban is aimed at leading the world in a final, high-stakes showdown against poachers. Officials hope to persuade China, the world’s largest ivory market, to follow suit.


Custom officers pose Wednesday in front of seized elephant tusks outside Paris. In recent weeks, French customs seized over 770 pounds of ivory tusks, an “exceptional” seizure and the most important one in 10 years, according to the head of the French customs. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

Now Zimbabwe and Namibia want to sell their warehoused ivory legally. “The fact that those options are still considered suggests that people aren’t on the same page about the 2008 one-time sale,” said Sekar, a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who was a doctoral candidate at Princeton University when the study started in 2013.

Sekar and Hsiang said the release of the paper wasn’t timed to counteract the two nation’s request, nor was it timed for the upcoming CITES meeting. Hsiang said he isn’t a strong supporter of bans. “I think, personally, before this study, I was a pretty strong proponent of legalization in a lot of markets,” including prostitution and drugs, he said. “I tended to think legalization was almost always the best idea.”

Likewise, Sekar said his view is that legalization can work. “Crocodile farms help crocodiles in the wild,” he noted, by breeding the animals, allowing them to grow to adulthood, then skinning them to provide hides and cut down on the profit poachers might make from killing crocodiles in the wild. 

But that strategy doesn’t work for elephants. “Because of the biology of crocodiles, we were able to farm them in large quantities to meet that demand. We out-competed the black market,” he said. “You can’t farm elephants, and they grow ivory relatively slowly. Are you going to be able to produce enough of that good to satisfy demand?”

Read more:

Monkeys hidden in shirts. Snakes stuffed in pants. Alligators in crates. Weird stories from wildlife port inspectors

Saying humans are more dangerous than Jaws, leaders move to protect sharks