Ivory Trade History: How it Impacts Elephants and People Today

A brief overview of CITES’s tenuous battle over differing elephant protection strategies, and how it relates to the resurgence in elephant poaching and the trade/anti-trade debate

Photo credit: All pictures by Michael Shwartz

By Michael Schwartz - 17. 

The Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’s (CITES) 17th conference of the parties (CoP17) in Johannesburg, South Africa is over, and despite the push from the 29-member country African Elephant Coalition, elephants from all existing range states will not be issued an Appendix I status. Similarly, regulated trade in ivory was denied for Appendix II listed elephants from Namibia and Zimbabwe. 

Of note, however, was the possibility that both latter countries might have ignored the CoP17 decision and resumed trade had all elephants been listed as Appendix I, which explains in part why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service voted in favor of keeping the split-listing. 

While more people are seemingly against any notion of trade nowadays, arguably due to moral reservations, learned trade skeptics believe a reopening would only worsen an already dire situation, especially given the mixed message that legitimacy might send to potential consumers, not to mention rampant corruption ranging from provenance to patron. 

Since the ivory wars of the 1970s, the focal point of the debate has been whether legal trade might curb elephant poaching by offsetting black market prices (one pound of ivory can fetch upwards of $1500 U.S.), or whether it would merely increase demand, leading to more killing. 

Before the 1989 Trade Ban 

Those familiar with the history of elephant conservation will recall 1989, the year CITES issued a global ban on the international trade in ivory. Few, however, know the details leading up to that pivotal decision.

It was a combination of corruption and the Cold War that precipitated the poaching crisis occurring throughout East Africa. Prior to 1974, the United States lent support to Ethiopia while the Soviet Union supplied arms to neighboring Somalia. Support roles were reversed, however, after Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam declared allegiance to communism. (Fitzjohn 2010)

Tanzania, Kenya, and parts of Uganda and Central Africa felt the brunt of the poaching scourge as roving gangs of Somalis equipped with artillery went on mass killing sprees to acquire rhino horn for Yemen and elephant ivory for Asia. Much of the ivory poaching in Kenya was also allegedly tied to high-ranking government officials, including Ngina Kenyatta, wife of then-President, Jomo Kenyatta.

As elephant poaching escalated, CITES appointed an ivory monitoring unit, known by 1985 as the Ivory Trade Review Group (ITRG). Their primary responsibility was, “setting up and ensuring the enforcement of ivory trade quotas in exporting countries.”

By 1986, an ivory quota system was set in place, though the ITRG later discovered that regulatory control mechanisms were easy to avoid. Overall, somewhere around 75 percent of raw ivory being sold still came from the illicit market, while penalties for offenders were minimal.

Meanwhile, international conservation groups launched massive, “Don’t Buy Ivory,” campaigns. Leaders in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa felt slighted by this approach, alleging that no one consulted them during the process, and that any concerns they expressed about a global trade ban were simply disregarded.

Despite their concerns, the “Don’t Buy Ivory” mantra was already seared into the collective conscience of Europe and the U.S. But while East Africa was experiencing an elephant poaching crisis, Southern Africa—Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe—had so many elephants, that they were using revenue from ivory sales to bolster conservation and assist rural communities living alongside wildlife. 

Conservation Inequality

The strategic rift that would soon further the divide between Southern Africa and East Africa arguably began with Western-white dominated efforts at controlling wildlife conservation across the entire continent, which included lobbying for an all-inclusive ban, and ignoring concerns from Africans who were relying on sale earnings for elephant protection and economic growth.

In his book, At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife, American journalist and former foreign correspondent to Kenya, Raymond Bonner, observed a post-colonial social inequality that grew from the almost diametrically opposing views between the Western and African perspectives of nature—the former taking a more romantic view, the latter, though not lacking in his and her own aesthetic appreciation of its beauty, taking the pragmatic approach—mitigating human-wildlife conflict and figuring out ways that communities could economically benefit from natural resources.

Since administrative conservation of Africa’s wildlife began with white colonial hunters, the postcolonial years saw the push for a comprehensive ivory ban from the same torchbearers—mainly Europeans and Americans:

  • During the ivory ban debate throughout 1988 and 1989, committees made up largely of whites commissioned studies, which were written by whites and then discussed at conferences dominated by whites. At the end of the twentieth century, the conservation movement in Africa was nearly as white, elitist and patrician as when the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire was founded at the beginning of the century. (Bonner 1993)

Some critics posit that since corruption in African countries like South Africa was so rife, foreign institutions had no choice but to take the proverbial reins. But as Bonner points out, these groups moved forward in such, “authoritarian and paternalistic,” fashion, the needs of African people living alongside wildlife were completely overlooked.

Another little known fact is that after releasing a study roughly five months before CITES had their biennial meeting in 1989, some members of the ITRG believed that their findings were deliberately misused to force a global ivory trade ban through. (Adams & McShane 1992)

[Editor's Note: However, it also must not be forgotten, that it was the so-called Somalia proposal at the crucial CITES conference in 1989 in Ottawa, that provided a common ground between those countries and lobbies that wanted to remain with culling Elephants and trading ivory and those banning it. Both sides were at loggerheads and by insisting on their proposals they risked that none would have been adopted. But the Somalia-proposal provided common ground and the 10-year moratorium was accepted and adopted. The result was the only period after WWII during which all elephant populations throughout Africa and also in Asia recovered.]

The 1999 and 2008 Ivory Sales

Ivory researchers almost unanimously agree that the 1989 ban slowed the poaching epidemic, giving elephant populations in East Africa a chance to recover. Subsequently, critics of trade in legal ivory regularly point to two separate one-off sales—one sanctioned in 1999, the other in 2008—as having reignited insatiable consumer demand in far Eastern countries like China.

During the first sale, Japan, a country no longer on the radar as being a major ivory outlet, was the only nation allowed to purchase stockpiled ivory. Interestingly, the price of ivory dropped after the first purchase, and again after the second—Chinese and Japanese accredited traders paid roughly 15 million dollars in 2008. (Stiles 2015)

It was Yale researchers, Gao Yufang and Susan Clark, who discovered that the uptick in poaching that occurred around the same period was, in fact, due to China having declared the practice of ivory carving a cultural heritage—one that its leaders insisted must be preserved:

  • In the early 21th century, the nearly extinct Chinese ivory industry…began a revival owing to a social movement focused on preserving China’s intangible cultural heritage. In November 2002, the 16th National People’s Congress (the highest legislative body in China) stated that, “we must give our support…to the protection of major cultural heritage and outstanding folk arts” … A nation-wide taskforce was established, made up of the Ministries of Culture, Education, Finance, the National Development and Reform Commission, and others. Institutions, including research centers, theme museums, and heritage transmission centers, were created at national, provincial, and local levels. Moreover, a national inventory of intangible cultural heritage was launched in 2005, and publicity initiatives were undertaken…The industry promoted the ivory carving culture in exhibitions, newspapers, TV, radios, and on the Internet. In May 2006, Beijing and Guangzhou ivory carving was included in the first National List of Intangible Cultural Heritages. This recognition guaranteed that the ivory industry could receive substantial support from the state. Indeed, preserving national intangible cultural heritage was the main reason proposed by the SFA in its attempt to acquire CITES approval to import ivory from Southern African countries. Recognition of intangible cultural heritage preservation continues today and thus enhances the cultural and aesthetic values of ivory artworks. (Yufang & Clark 2014)

Skeptics point out that both ivory sales seemingly undermined the 1989 global ban, even if they weren’t a direct cause of China’s renewed interest in ivory. But the fact remains that were it not for both sanctioned sales, black market prices would have continued climbing.

Another key factor was the global financial crisis of 2008, when China switched from stocks and properties to commodities, which included ivory, coinciding with CITES voting to prohibit future sales of ivory until 2016 the previous year, which once again caused the price of ivory to increase significantly, consequently resulting in more poaching.

It wasn’t until 2013 that ivory prices fell again after Chinese investors got out of commodities as economic conditions improved. (Schwartz 2016)

Overall, it was the combination of China’s self-declared ivory carving resurgence, the global recession, and the CITES temporary ban that have led to a tripling in ivory prices on the black market. 

Malum Prohibitum (wrong because it’s prohibited) or Malum in Se (wrong in and of itself)?

Pro-trade advocates in Southern Africa and elsewhere argue that it is possible to harvest current stockpiles sitting in vaults and from elephants that have died of natural causes to stop illegal poaching in its tracks. They are convinced that money made from such sales would be an addendum to existing conservation revenue, and that ongoing education efforts to reduce demand should continue. But where their theory hits a major snag is the mixed messages to potential consumers, and that illegal laundering might continue unimpeded.

While a system of legal trade might have failed, one must at least recognize that current endeavors have not effectively reduced poaching, and that many who proposed trade at CoP17 were by and large doing so to save elephants.

Today, those who question the logic and emotional stimulus that drives the anti-trade campaign are branded as heretics, while some anti-trade advocates standing at the bully pulpit assign emotionally driven rhetoric with absolute truth values rather than working to underscore scientific evidence that might further disprove a legal market.

Though not a trade endorsement, it’s a sure bet that people often choose what their cognitively conditioned perspectives dictate rather than what is or might be. Ergo, much of the global collective has been conditioned to believe that anyone endorsing trade is doing so with less than noble intentions—a major misconception to say the least.

Since the zeitgeist of the 21st century is predominantly against any form of legal trade, especially since it is increasingly seen as morally reprehensible, and because of the influence that international NGOs still hold over the African continent, it is no surprise that CITES overwhelmingly rejected legal ivory sale proposals to see if it might reduce the illegal killing of elephants.

What is certain is that the African continent has reached a dangerous tipping point for elephant protection; global intervention and increased anti-trafficking measures have not reduced the illegal trade, and the Western world and most African countries simply do not possess the man-power nor financial resources to police the entire continent (or the world for that matter) for ivory poachers, middle men, and powerful kingpins.   

It’s safe to say, however, that education aimed at reducing demand remains the most important tool in ensuring the future for elephants.

The ongoing crux is that people still tend to look at the African continent as a single entity rather than recognizing regional and national differences, and how any elephant protection strategy depends on the system of governance, how much corruption exists (if any), the number of people and elephants in each country, inter and intra state elephant migration routes, and how too many elephants against the backdrop of expanding human populations will collectively impact biodiversity throughout Africa’s remaining wildlife havens.

Since an outsider’s aesthetically pleasing view of Africa’s wildlife is different than an impoverished African’s view of dangerous animals and the potential for economic benefits, one thing becomes clear: if elephant killing continues unabated, African countries could potentially take on more individual responsibility for wildlife management, while living with whatever outcome their decisions would yield. 



Adams, Jonathan S., and Thomas O. McShane. The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation without Illusion. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992. Print.

Bonner, Raymond. At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa's Wildlife. New York: Knopf, 1993. Print.

Clark, Susan, and Yufang Gao. "Elephant Ivory Trade in China: Trends and Drivers." Elephant Ivory Trade in China: Trends and Drivers. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2016.

Fitzjohn, Tony, and Miles Bredin. Born Wild: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Passion for Africa. New York: Crown, 2010. Print.

Schwartz, Michael. "Link Between Ivory Price Drop and China’s Trade Ban Questioned." National Geographic Society. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Stiles, Daniel. "Only Legal Ivory Can Stop Poaching." Earth Island Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.

"TED Case Studies." Elephant Ivory Trade Ban. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Oct. 2016.\



Michael Schwartz

Michael Schwartz - Wildlife Biology/Ecology