Why I lashed out on Nat Geo against another call for more ivory trade

Elephant ivory seized in Hong Kong SAR of China. c. IFAW/A. HoffordThe ivory trade is killing elephants.


Those of us who work hard to combat the poaching as well as interdict trafficking of and reduce demand for ivory along the entire trade chain from Africa to Asia should not be distracted by the occasional call for a legal ivory trade.

But the most recent one—from an anthropologist, IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) member and field researcher named Daniel Stiles in National Geographic’s popular blog Voice for Elephants—hit particularly close to home and raised my ire.

I appreciate Stiles claiming that it makes him “extremely angry that people kill [elephants] for their ivory.” But what I don’t understand is why he would advocate for more trade of ivory. Since this trade IS the culprit for the slaughter of tens of thousands of elephants a year in Africa. 

His recent proposal for a legal ivory trade is dead wrong, and I articulated my views in a response titled “Elephants Are Not Widgets” in that same arena nine days later.

The title of my piece is an homage to “Elephants are not Diamonds,” written prior to the16th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference of the Parties (CoP), and the original “Elephants are not Beetles,” written in 1989 as we were approaching the listing of the African elephant on Appendix I of CITES.

I had to state the fact that the ivory trade does not follow the simplistic rules of supply and demand and attack Stiles’ misconceptions and skewed logic regarding this.

I explained that ivory trading cannot happen in a vacuum without consideration of the social, cultural, political, and economic context in my native China.

The repeated “one-off” international ivory sales combined with legal ivory markets in consuming countries removes any stigma attached with ivory consumption and creates grey markets.

These grey markets confuse consumers, stimulate demand and attract criminals who reap huge profits from trafficking and trading in ivory from poached elephants.

A proposed scheme of regulated legal ivory trading as a solution to the elephant poaching crisis is flawed. If you understand the market dynamics and human behaviors associated with all aspect of the ivory trade, you’d know that “a legalized ivory trade would be in reality a complete disaster.”

The escalating poaching of elephants in Africa is solely to meet the insatiable demand for ivory in the international markets. Biologically, elephants simply cannot support an economic model of supply and demand. With the fast growing human population, economy and consumerism, no wildlife can sustain this type of commercial exploitation, let alone a long-living, slow growing, slow-breeding species like the elephant.

I was not alone. National Geographic commissioned Katarzyna Nowak to expertly compile and edit a number of notable experts’ responses to Stiles’ assertions.

The power of the anti-trade voices in “Irrelevant, Illogical, and Illegal–24 Experts Respond to Arguments Supporting Legalization of the Ivory Trade” speak powerfully as one, all the while making a number of clear points individually as well.

Coincidentally, the UN Chronicle’s current issue devoted to illegal wildlife trade includes a piece I penned titled Will China Say No to Wildlife Trade?

I argue that the actions China can take against wildlife trade—and the work IFAW specifically has been doing in regards to demand reduction—hold the key to squashing this horrific scourge on our planet’s treasured wildlife.

Perhaps one day when we have won the war against the poaching epidemic and illegal wildlife trade, we will look back on these debates and appreciate them for helping us all sharpen our directives and ignite our passions. But until then, I will be damned if I hesitate to speak out on behalf of the world’s endangered wildlife at this crucial precipice.


For more information on our efforts to protect endangered wildlife from commercial trade, visit our campaign page.

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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