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Why the U.S. Destroyed Its Ivory Stockpile

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Carved elephant tusks

Elaborately carved tusks were among the ivory items pulverized at the U.S. ivory crush on November 14. Image: Kate Wong

ROCKY MOUNTAIN ARSENAL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, COLO.–On a clear day outside Denver, dust filled the air surrounding an industrial rock crusher as it pulverized nearly six tons of confiscated elephant ivory. Loader trucks dumped batch after batch of whole tusks, elaborately carved figurines, bracelets and other baubles into the giant blue crusher, which spit them out as a stream of fragments that resembled remnants of seashells pounded by heavy surf. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) destroyed the 25 years’ worth of ivory seizures—a quantity that could command perhaps $12 million on the black market–to signal to the world that the U.S. will not tolerate elephant poaching or wildlife crime in general. For many attendees, the crush was also a funeral of sorts for the more than 2,000 elephants that were slaughtered for the ivory that ended up here in Colorado.

The U.S. is not the first country to destroy its seized ivory. In 1989, Kenya responded to rampant elephant poaching by burning its stockpile. More recently, with poaching surging to record levels of 30,000 elephants or more a year, Gabon and the Philippines have destroyed their ivory, too. The U.S. ivory crush on November 14 followed President Obama’s July 1 executive order calling on government agencies to step up efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade.

Loader truck carting ivory
Loader truck carts confiscated ivory to a rock crusher for destruction. Image: Kate Wong

Concerns over the trade have been escalating not only because of the dramatic spike in elephant deaths but because of who is doing the killing. In contrast to the elephant poaching crisis of the 1980s, which resulted mainly from opportunistic hunting carried out by individuals, the current crisis is the work of transnational criminal syndicates that traffic in wildlife just as they traffic in humans, drugs and arms. Profits from the illegal sale of ivory, rhinoceros horn and other wildlife products–a $19-billion-a-year industry–are now known to fund terrorist and other extremist groups.

Yet whether the destruction of ivory stockpiles will actually help stamp out the trade is a matter of some debate. Critics contend that it may actually have the opposite effect. By reducing the ivory supply, such events will drive the price up and thus stimulate the poaching of even more elephants, so the argument goes.

Experts from government and nongovernment organizations who spoke at the U.S. ivory crush event defended the decision to destroy the stockpile. Peter Knights of WildAid, a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in San Francisco, observed that people who argue against the destruction of ivory stockpiles think that having a legal supply is the answer to the poaching problem. But attempts to flood the market with ivory in the past have had disastrous results, actually increasing poaching rather than curbing it. “I think we have to look at history and we have to learn this lesson,” he said. “People need to understand this is just as heinous a crime as consumption of heroin or something like that. We don’t put heroin back on the market when we seize it.”

FWS director Daniel Ashe said that another problem with putting more ivory into the legal supply chain is that it would create a smokescreen for illicit trade in ivory, making law enforcement and effective prosecution of criminals more difficult.

Industrial rock crusher

Industrial rock crusher smashed six tons of ivory confiscated over the past 25 years. Image: Kate Wong

Destroying ivory stockpiles also makes practical sense, according to Crawford Allan of the World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC. In countries that lack the finances to secure their stocks of ivory effectively, he said, corrupt officials are selling it out of the backdoor of the storeroom and into the illegal trade. “If you haven’t got the money to protect it…the best thing to do is put it out of harm’s way, put it out of temptation, destroy it—simple as that,” Allan asserted.

Ashe argued that the ivory trade must be addressed as a moral and ethical issue. “The key to ethics is social [disapproval] for behaviors that are contrary to standard custom. What we need to do is establish a standard custom which is that ivory belongs to living elephants in the wild and we should have social [disapproval] for the possession and commercial trade in ivory.”

According to Grace Ge Gabriel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, destroying confiscated wildlife to fight illicit trade has worked before with another species, the Tibetan antelope, also known as the chiru. Long prized for its fine fur, which is used to make so-called shahtoosh wool shawls that sell for thousands of dollars apiece, the antelope was being poached by the tens of thousands to supply the western shahtoosh market, she explained. So 10 years ago the Chinese government torched a bunch of Tibetan antelope pelts. “In that torching China sent a signal and asked the international community to support them in shutting down the trade and everybody did–from the increase in anti-poaching efforts in China to the shifting of the entire shahtoosh weaving industry in Kashmir to weaving an alternative wool to the fashion industry in the west shutting down the trade,” Gabriel recalled. In addition, the U.S. made the Tibetan antelope a protected species under in the Endangered Species Act. “I hope the crushing of the ivory today will send that message and [bring] the same success for elephants,” she said.

Crushed ivory

Crushed ivory will be turned into educational displays for the public. Image: Kate Wong

Yet even with all that support for ending the shahtoosh trade, poaching continues to threaten the Tibetan antelope. This past January officials in Nepal seized a more than 2,500-pound cache of shahtoosh wool worth millions of dollars. Some 11,500 animals were killed for that wool. The entire Tibetan antelope population is only an estimated 150,000 individuals strong.

Shutting down the ivory trade will be all the more difficult because of the involvement of highly organized criminal syndicates on the supply side that are running their poaching rackets like military operations, complete with machine guns, night-vision goggles, helicopters and an endless supply of people willing to take on the risks of poaching. Those countries that harbor wild elephants in most cases do not have the resources to effectively protect the animals from such well equipped and numerous enemy forces. By way of example, Jimmiel Mandima of the African Wildlife Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, said that Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe has 200 rangers to protect the wildlife in an area the size of Switzerland; it needs 700.  In May poachers poisoned watering holes and salt licks in the park with cyanide, killing perhaps more than 300 elephants, as well as lions, hyenas and wild dogs, among other species.

The root of the problem is soaring demand for ivory in China, which has by far the largest market for the product. Once a luxury few could afford, ivory is now within the financial grasp of the masses, thanks to the explosive growth of the country’s middle class. A recent National Geographic survey of 600 middle and upper middle class Chinese found that 84 percent of respondents planned to buy ivory in the future.

Ivory elephant figurine

Ivory elephant figurine was among the trinkets destroyed in the crush. Image: Kate Wong

Making matters worse, countries that consume ivory have shown reluctance to acknowledge their role in fueling Africa’s elephant poaching crisis. International commercial trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, with the exception of some one-off sales, but experts say that legal domestic ivory markets in places like China and Thailand allow for the laundering of illegal ivory from Africa. Yet China has denied that its legal ivory market contributes to poaching, as has Thailand. At the opening of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species in March, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said Thailand would amend its national legislation “with the goal of putting an end on ivory trade and to be in line with international norms.” But she did not provide any further details, prompting concern that she was not referring to shutting down the country’s domestic ivory trade, which is what conservationists have been pushing for.

As the second largest ivory market (albeit a distant second behind China), the U.S. is part of the problem, too. Although the import and export of African ivory for commercial purposes is generally not allowed here, our system is riddled with legal loopholes that criminals can exploit. For instance, the U.S. allows the import of raw tusks from sport-hunted elephants, but does not restrict the number of tusks a hunter can bring in. It also allows the trade of antique ivory, despite the fact that on a practical level it is impossible to distinguish old ivory from new. In the December issue of Scientific American the editors argue that the U.S. should ban the trade of all ivory, among other measures this country should take to help fight illegal wildlife trafficking.

Elephant banner

Banner depicting 30 elephants, each representing 1,000 animals, illustrates the scale of the slaughter: 30,000 animals a year are being killed for their ivory. Image: Kate Wong

Meanwhile the African elephants are dying–one every 15 minutes. At that rate they could be extinct in the wild in a matter of decades.

During his remarks ahead of the crush, FWS’s Ashe stood at a podium next to a display of ivory trinkets and compared the plight of the elephant to that of the American bison. The bison was once hunted to near extinction for its hide and meat but now roams the plains here in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and elsewhere thanks to intensive conservation efforts. “In the span of a few short decades, the Great Plains bison herd—a population estimated at one time to be between 30 and 60 million animals—was reduced to fewer than 700,” he said. “I’m haunted by that example when I think of African elephants and what can happen when greed and indifference take hold in the world. And so we’re here in the shadow of past failures to say, ‘Enough.’”


Full disclosure: my travel expenses for attending the crush were paid in part by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the World Wildlife Fund.




Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Momus 5:00 pm 11/19/2013

    Destroying this ivory was clearly stupid and a barbaric act. And it will do nothing to stop the barbaric slaughter of elephants for their tusks.
    If anything it will have the opposite effect.

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  2. 2. RSchmidt 7:06 pm 11/19/2013

    China is one of the greatest threats to the environment in the world today. It will not change its ways until international pressure forces it to do so. We need binding international treats with economic consequences. In the mean time, consumers can boycott Chinese goods. Whether you are talking about human rights, intellectual rights, the environment or even product safety, China has shown time and time again that they are unwilling to play by the rules. We need to hold them accountable.

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  3. 3. oldfartfox 7:53 pm 11/19/2013

    I agree with Momus (#1).
    It is senseless. Also as the possessor of 1 old ivory statuette of Japanese origin that was imported by my father when he was stationed in Japan in the 1950′s, I am directly effected by these regulations.
    Although I currently have no interest in selling it, financial circumstances can change, and I or my heirs may want to sell it in the future. Unfortunately, since it was inherited, I have no way to prove its age or the legality of such a transaction.

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  4. 4. Brian Dunning 8:34 pm 11/19/2013

    If the root of the problem is “soaring demand”, as you say, then reducing supply by destroying stockpiles is the worst possible way to address it.

    A problem as horrific as this needs to be approached on multiple battlefronts. Keeping as much existing ivory as possible on the market minimizes the profits in the illegal ivory industry.

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  5. 5. DangerRick 11:43 pm 11/19/2013

    If elephants go extinct in 20 years, will anyone look back on crushing their tusks with pride? Who actually thinks destroying elephant ivory is of benefit to the elephants? It won’t help the dead ones. This will not reduce demand one bit. I would equate this to destroying a stolen car, rather than giving it back to its rightful owner.

    I’m not convinced that there is a completely market-based solution to this problem, either. Perhaps confiscated ivory could be brought back to market, “marked” as legal, and proceeds could fund further elephant security and habitat? How many park rangers could have been funded with $12M+ in proceeds?

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  6. 6. oneeyeopen 12:29 am 11/20/2013

    where is the thinking on this,if you have 15 mill. in ivory sell it at a resonable price on the open market and all profits go to protect and catch poachers.
    That drives down the price, any poachers will know thats marked for there heads.
    Real stupid to destroy it.

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  7. 7. Emiliano 1:57 am 11/20/2013

    If memory serves, a few years ago (3-4-5?) Kenya did in fact put the torch to over 16 tons of confiscated ivory, rather than use it for good (obvious to me!) If this ivory had been offered for international sale, at exorbitant prices, hard telling what sum of money could have been generated. Somebody would have bought every stick of it, no matter what the cost! That money could then have been used to build a huge contingent of “poacher hunters”, to coin a phrase, who would have the legal power to kill poachers on sight, as they do in Zimbabwe and the Great Rift areas. As far as that goes, Kenya could open its territories to limited legal hunting of elephants, as in the past, and use that money for the same purpose. Legal hunters in the United States bear on their shoulders the cost of most game preservation and endangered-species protection, wildlife habitat establishment, and all sorts of lesser wildlife programs, through the purchase of hunting licenses and migratory wildfowl stamps. The U. S. Government could have sold the tons of ivory that was crushed this week on the open market, used half the money for wildlife programs such as listed above here at home, and sent the rest of the money from the sale of it to appropriate governments in Africa and India as good-faith payment toward the in-place conservation programs already extant in said countries. The destruction of all this ivory did diddly-squat toward the stoppage of poaching these beautiful animals, since the poachers could care less—they get their money up-front, on delivery to whomever is trafficking the illegal ivory.

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  8. 8. wyldfyr 10:16 am 11/20/2013

    Just how much extra wildlife protection would $12 million buy? (we are talking about a one-shot boost, remember) How much help would that money give to wildlife protection agents, when they have another 6 tons of “legal” ivory in the market, making it difficult to distinguish “legitimate” trade from the trade of illegally obtained ivory. Most of the comments here are a bit shortsighted. If we really want to stop this, we need to make trading and transporting ivory globally illegal, and step up the efforts to fight the poaching enough to make it more costly to get the ivory than its worth, while working to bring down the price in a way that wont add to the problem. Instead of trying to manipulate the market directly, just change society’s norms so there is no prestige or reward to possessing it in the first place, like the article suggested.

    IF you think manipulating a market, especially a well hidden and protected black market, can be planned and executed as an exact science, then please do tell, because the last time I checked, No One Knows How To Do It! What makes you think you know any better?!?

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  9. 9. Dr. Merc 10:16 am 11/20/2013

    I’m sure the poachers were thrilled that the value of their existing stock just rose 12% due to this one act. Plus, they’d been kind of half-thinking about hiring more personnel, but this clinched it. Given how raw ivory is now even more valuable, it stands to reason that it’ll be worth the additional wages. Any good business person could see that.

    The obvious answer to poaching is to glut the market. Sell every piece of ivory at rock-bottom prices. Manufacture imitation ivory and sell it as the real deal. Produce fake baubles and trinkets and statues and sex powder and sell them everywhere, again at dirt-cheap prices. An Amazon search for “crushed ivory sex potion” should yield 3,000 hits, each under-bidding the next.

    The poacher will arrive at the secret meeting, demand $10,000 for his latest haul, and be laughed right out of the village.

    End of problem.

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  10. 10. wyldfyr 10:34 am 11/20/2013

    In addition to my previous comments, I agree that flooding the market with fake ivory that is indistinguishable from the real thing could be a viable tool provided it can really be done at a tiny fraction of the current ivory market value. Might not do a thing for demand though, which is the root problem. (You cant solve this problem if you don’t do anything to the demand side. Believing otherwise is foolish and naive)

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  11. 11. wyldfyr 10:58 am 11/20/2013

    More Thoughts:
    The problem is not only price, but also SIZE of the market. The market is so big, it makes harvesting unsustainable. Even if there wasn’t any legal restrictions on harvesting, the supply of new ivory would be so small (and perhaps non-existent by now) relative to demand, that the prices would still be close to were they are now. (It is silly to think that adding 6 tons to the supply would have anything but a short term effect, and could actually drive up demand later as new buyers would be in the market looking for the cheaper ivory) Ideally, to stop elephants from being harvested into extinction, we would need to make the market for real ivory small enough for sustainable harvesting, legal or otherwise.
    This is why I have been trying to say that effective and lasting manipulation of the demand side, as well as the supply side, is the only way to mitigate this problem and avoid harvesting to extinction.

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  12. 12. N a g n o s t i c 12:10 pm 11/20/2013

    I don’t understand why elephants aren’t bred for consumption, like pigs and cattle. Guaranteed population increaser, that.

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  13. 13. sault 4:50 pm 11/20/2013

    N a g,

    African elephants eat WAY too much, are WAY too social / aggressive / strong and prefer to roam over WAY too much territory to make captivity economic. Even after thousands and thousands of years of coexistence, humans haven’t been very successful at taming them.

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  14. 14. Ronald_Orenstein 6:39 pm 11/20/2013

    First, some disclosure: I have been working actively on this issue for some twenty-five years, first for the International Wildlife Calition and subsequently as a consultant for Humane Society International. I am the author of “Ivory, Horn and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros Poaching Crisis”, published this fall by Firefly Books.

    First, on the subject of domestication: even in Asia elephants have never been truly domesticated. Work animals are almost always captured from the wild. One reason for this is that elephants take almost as long to mature as humans to, and raising an animal for ten years or more before it can be put to work is simply too costly for most of the people that use them. Even if you wanted to raise them only for their ivory – something I think most of us, who are aware of how intelligent and social these animals are, would regard with horror – it would take at least twenty or thirty years to produce an animal with fully-sized tusks.

    The US is prevented by both domestic and international law from selling off its stockpile, and changing that (assuming this was desirable, which it is not in my opinion) would take years (not to mention the difficulty of explaining to the many African countries opposed to any illegal trade why the US, which has been their ally, is suddenly trying to cash in on ivory when they themselves have chosen not to do so). Selling ivory to create an anti-poaching force is not desirable when the money could be found in other ways as it could simulate further poaching, and is opposed by most African countries; in those few countries that have sold ivory legally there is little evidence that this has resulted in lower poaching levels. Poaching is most widespread in countries with poor governance or in states that border on such countries, without reference to their views on ivory trade.

    VERY briefly: the chief problem with ivory trade today is massive demand. Whether you agree with the US action or not, attempts to reduce demand in China and elsewhere are impeded, not helped, by the existence of legal ivory sales because they cntinue to give the message that ivory is worth buying. China is the only country with large-scale government-approved legal ivory sales, AND it is the country that is the number one recipient of illegal ivory worldwide. A very large proportion of the ivory sold in China comes from poached animals despite (if not in part because of) the existence of a legal market.

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  15. 15. Owl905 11:24 pm 11/20/2013

    Study it all you want – there’s no atonement and no closure from crushing the tusks. Sequester them somewhere. Wait out the storm. The market doesn’t change, and there’s no gain in destroying an asset. Someday they may be repatriated to the countries of origin as totem symbols to raise awareness; there’s valuable history in the tusks themselves that could be valuable someday – it might even convict some missing perps. There is no benefit to killing the victims a second time.

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  16. 16. Ronald_Orenstein 12:19 pm 11/21/2013

    Sorry, but I disagree. First of all, the market does change – and rise in demand and price has invariably been accompanied by a rise in poaching (as happened most notably in the 1980s and post-2008). As long as ivory is an asset it will attract criminals – and that drives down the value of elephants as living animals, for tourism and other benefits. That is why countries like Kenya have destroyed their stockpiles – they see ivory as a cost, not a benefit. Also, maintaining stockpiled ivory in peak condition is expensive as it tends to dry out, crack and deteriorate, depreciating any price you might get for it even if you did want to sell it. The US has no need to repatriate raw ivory (art works might possibly be another matter) to countries that either have their own stockpiles already or have made it clear that they prefer to destroy the stockpiles they have. I would hope that any confiscated ivory has had samples removed for forensic purposes before going into a stockpile – that is what the Parties to the CITES treaty (including the US) agreed to do last March, ad the finest forensic lab for ivory analysis (which has traced a good deal of poached ivory to its source) is in the US.

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  17. 17. Anchovy_Rancher 3:33 pm 11/21/2013

    So, when are conservation groups, Fish and Wildlife, C.I.T.I.E.S, etc., going to go after the Heavy Hitters in this game? By that I mean: Japan and China. Not that many other countries aren’t involved, including some of the richest Middle Eastern countries. That’s what is going to flatten the tires on this “bus.”

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  18. 18. Ronald_Orenstein 4:37 pm 11/21/2013

    It depends what you mean by “going after”. No one is going to impose serious broad economic sanctions on Japan or China (whether you want them to or not) over ivory and rhino horn. The US has the Pelly Amendment (and did use it once against Taiwan on rhino horn, so it remains an option). However, Japan is not the problem it used to be; China (with Vietnam and Thailand) are much bigger problem countries for ivory. China’s government-approved sales were given international legal sanction, so it is in effect doing nothing wrong legally; the trick is (a) to reduce demand in the Chinese buyer public; (b) to convince China to suspend its legal sales (this would greatly assist accomplishing (a)); and (c) to ensure that China steps up enforcement and education, both within its borders and in places like Africa (most of the people arrested trying to leave Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi with smuggled ivory are Chinese nationals). The experts on this issue, including people like Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton, probably the world’s pre-eminent elephant biologist, believe that this can best be done by a diplomatic and cooperative approach rather than through “China-bashing”, and in my own experience – though it can take a long time – this does yield results.

    One point: CITES is not an organization but a treaty, and as such cannot act unless its member countries agree (a 2/3 majority is needed for most substantive matters). Therefore asking CITES to “do something” on its own, especially against the wishes of a powerful member country with many allies and dependents, is difficult. Parties have agreed to sanctions against countries in gross violation of its terms (eg Nigeria, Guinea) but it doesn’t happen often.

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  19. 19. Emiliano 6:56 pm 11/21/2013

    I stand with what I’ve already stated—with the added belief that the only way to stop professional poachers is to make the business of poaching unattractive enough to these people that they’ll find another vocation—kinda like “If you kill an elephant, I (The affected government) will kill YOU!”

    There’s a second, and up until now unmentioned, situation to consider: What does our government intend to do with six tons of crushed ivory? There are several America-based firearms accessory manufacturers that offer “reconstituted ivory” handgun grips, perfectly legal to sell and own, for a little less (not much) than one would pay for old, pre-ban solid ivory grips. I am a gun aficionado and know this to be true, and I’m relatively certain that other markets, such as curio-and-trinket makers and sellers benefit from this practice also. I haven’t heard what is to become of the supposedly “crushed-to-unusable-state” ivory. Anybody know?

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  20. 20. tala1 8:07 pm 11/21/2013

    thought I read about a preserve somewhere (perhaps Sou. africa?) that posted poachers will be shot on sight signs throughout and animals were actually thriving there. Guess the poachers are getting bigger “signs”…

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  21. 21. Ronald_Orenstein 11:17 pm 11/21/2013

    The trouble is that some countries (ie Kenya) already have shoot-to-kill policies against poachers, and that much of the poaching in central Africa is done by members of armed militia groups. Under these circumstances, the fear of death seems not to be enough to stop often poor and desperate people. You have to make the business unattractive to the kingpins, not to the foot soldiers – and driving down the price by reducing demand is part of that. So are serious fines and long jail sentences for the middlemen, and for the big boys if you can catch them.

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  22. 22. learningengineer 2:49 pm 11/22/2013

    The heroine analogy is false: ivory is nothing like drugs. The fact of the matter is that prohibitions don’t work because they are impossible to enforce with any measure that affects change. The best solution would be to offer one billion dollars to whomever can make a faux ivory that is indistinguishable from real ivory. The market would tank. Dumping real ivory on the market doesn’t work because it is transient: eventually it becomes scarce again.

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  23. 23. Ronald_Orenstein 12:17 am 11/23/2013

    False ivory very difficult to distinguish from the real thing, made from extruded resins, has been around for years, I’m afraid. There is also a booming market for mammoth ivory in China, with mammoth ivory pieces almost as or even more numerous than elephant ivory pieces on sale in some shops in cites like Guangzhou. Prohibitions (including the 1989 ban on ivory trade) can work if people buy into them (as the ivory ban did in North America post-1989), but partial prohibitions don’t because they confuse the message that ivory is too environmentally costly to be socially acceptable.

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  24. 24. Redshift2k5 9:03 pm 11/23/2013

    Obviously, directly selling it would have a direct, short-term benefit- cash they could spend on awareness or anti-poaching. BUT the problem is, there is no way to have a legal ivory trade that 100% excludes illegal ivory. A legal trade simply acts as a smokescreen for illegal ivory.

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  25. 25. bucketofsquid 5:44 pm 11/25/2013

    An even better solution is to make the confiscated ivory toxic or strongly radioactive and return it to the illegal ivory pipeline. As the ivory moves to the end consumer the people trafficking it will die off and the final customer will die off as well. It will have the added benefit of taking out their families as well so the entire ivory craving culture will be destroyed.

    I was very disappointed when the “war on drugs” didn’t do this with cocaine, methamphetamines and heroine. If you are going to have a war you have to kill people that make up the infrastructure of the enemy. For economic wars this includes the final customer.

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