Ivory – To burn or not to burn? by Chris Huxley

A discussion of the pros and cons of destroying ivory

Chris Huxley

This discussion has been stimulated by recent conversations with a variety of people holding different views on the thorny topic of how to deal with elephant ivory in the context of Africa’s declining elephant populations.

I have been involved in efforts to control the international trade in ivory for nearly forty years. In 1978 I was put in charge of Hong Kong’s CITES controls at a time when it was the centre of the global ivory trade. Since then, I have worked for all sides including the CITES Secretariat, several individual states, the Southern African Development Community, NGOs and the private sector. I do not profess to be one of the world’s leading experts on ivory, but I can claim a great deal of experience and believe that our efforts to conserve what remains of Africa’s wild elephants must be based on rational arguments, a knowledge of the intricacies of the subject and a careful consideration of the options open to us.

The Background

Any consideration of the options regarding the long-term fate of government stocks of ivory must start with recognition of the nature of the material. Ivory has an intrinsic value to humans as a result of its very nature. There is something about its appearance and feel that appeals to people and makes it attractive to their senses. This is not something that can be changed overnight, indeed it might not be possible to change it at all. In this respect, it is not directly comparable to rhino horn. It is true that rhino horn has an intrinsic value in certain cultures (middle eastern daggers and some far eastern carvings), but the major demand in recent years has been for rhino horn as a medicine, i.e. something that can be replaced by another medicine. Ivory cannot be replaced by another material because its very nature is what makes it valuable. The one possible mechanism for dealing with this aspect is to create an artificial material that is so similar that it cannot be distinguished by ordinary means. This may be an avenue that could be explored?

To understand this point fully, it is necessary to look at the history of man’s association with ivory. The oldest known piece of sculpture is a figure carved in ivory. Ivory’s texture, visual appearance and warmth have had a similar effect on people as gold and precious gems. It has been a valued material in this way for many millennia. Great works of art have been created using ivory, traditional crafts have flourished on the basis of ivory carving, concert pianists will tell you that nothing feels as good as an ivory keyboard and ivory artifacts are often the most impressive symbols – as for example the Kenyan Presidential Mace which Daniel Arap Moy was carrying when he set fire to the first great ivory stockpile bonfire (and it is instructive to note that he did not throw the mace on the fire and probably never realised the symbolic significance of his actions).

For centuries, ivory was known as “white gold”, and for a good reason. It was traded in parallel with gold, but in advance of the latter. That is, movement in the price of ivory was followed by similar movement in the price of gold some time later (usually a matter of months). This underlines its status as something entirely different to other wildlife products. The relationship between the two commodities has now broken down, presumably as a result of the efforts of the CITES community to find a solution to the gross overexploitation of the resource base.

The importance of ivory is underlined by the fact that much of the slave trade out of Africa originated when men were forced to carry tusks to the coast to supply the international trade. The traders realised that, in addition to selling their valuable ivory, they could also sell the men that had carried it. The slave trade was often a spin-off from the ivory trade.

In summary, ivory has always been regarded as something bearing intrinsic value. It is not possible to ignore this aspect of the issue, which implies that it is likely that there will always be some demand for the product, unless current efforts to persuade everyone to the contrary become successful.

How much is there and how much will there be?

It is also essential to recognise that there are very many thousands of tonnes of ivory in legal possession throughout the world, both as raw material (i.e. tusks) and as artifacts and works of art of many types. These items do not degrade to any appreciable extent and it must be assumed that they will continue to be legal possessions. This, in turn, implies that their “value” (i.e. not necessarily their monetary worth) will remain intact. In fact, if the current efforts towards “devaluing” fresh ivory continues, it is conceivable that existing, legitimate ivory may increase in monetary value in the long term.

It should also be recognised that production of ivory will continue as long as there are elephants (in the absence of selective breeding for tuskless individuals). The volume of ivory produced each year can be calculated with a fair degree of accuracy, so if we know roughly how many elephants remain we can also know how much ivory will be produced. With current estimates of elephant numbers in Africa, it is clear that the problem of ivory stockpiles is likely to remain physically challenging for a long time. Of course, if the number of elephants is reduced significantly, the problem of ivory stocks is also reduced. Conversely, the more successful our conservation efforts become, the greater the problem of ivory stockpiles becomes.

In this regard, it must be understood that the destruction of stocks as a matter of principle, i.e. in order to attempt to demonstrate that ivory has no value, will incur or imply a commitment to continuing destruction for the foreseeable future.

Monetary value?

A further point to consider is that, as long as there is any sort of market, any reduction in the supply of the material will necessarily result in an increase in monetary value. Is it possible to reduce the demand to such a low level that this is irrelevant? In view of the thousands of tonnes of ivory that are obviously highly valued by their current owners across the globe, it might seem overoptimistic to expect demand to be eliminated. If demand is not eliminated, a monetary value will continue to exist.

Of course, the destruction, by burning or by crushing, is a very potent method of signalling a belief in a particular course of action, and the publicity associated with some of these events must surely have had a significant positive impact by persuading people to not buy ivory. But there have also been criticisms in many quarters that to burn a valuable resource is akin to burning money itself. Indeed, many high-ranking government officers and politicians in several African countries told me that they regarded the first event in Kenya as something extremely stupid. One justification given at the time was that western governments had promised large sums of money “in compensation”. If this approach could be routine for any such destruction of ivory, I would imagine the decision would be very much easier.

Destruction of existing government stocks of ivory, with or without financial compensation, would certainly reflect well on any country’s reputation in much of the western world where the greatest impetus for this approach has originated.

Storage problems?

A major issue for many African countries is that of security. The long-term storage of a valuable commodity requires a facility with a very high level of security. Such facilities are expensive to build and expensive to maintain and protect. Allied to this problem is that of corruption. There are plenty of instances of corrupt practices resulting in government property going missing and entering illegal trade. It is probably true to say that storage of ivory is an invitation to corruption and theft.

Long term storage of ivory is a tacit acknowledgement that the material has a value that might someday be realisable, even if the immediate philosophy is one of genuinely putting it “beyond economic use”, i.e. having no intention to sell it. Thus, storage might be viewed as a denial of confidence in the current policy of trying to eliminate demand. In this case, any government that decides to not destroy its ivory stockpile – on a continuing basis – is effectively making a statement that it does not expect the current CITES and international policy to be successful.

The way forward?

Current attempts to tackle the problem by “banning” ivory and promoting a philosophy that ascribes no aesthetic or monetary value to either the raw material or anything made with it, may or may not succeed. We will have to wait and see. However, it seems to me unlikely that, in the long term, this approach will have the desired effect. Similar action in banning all trade with respect to rhino horn has clearly failed. Because of this uncertainty, there are arguments in favour of not destroying ivory. If, eventually, a legitimate trade were to be permitted, a large supply is the best mechanism to keep the price down and, thus, reduce the pressure on elephant populations.

If it were argued, as I have heard it said, that the current approach acknowledges that it is not possible to eliminate demand completely and that what is being aimed for is to reduce the demand significantly, then this is an admission that, with a continuing demand, there would be benefit in allowing eventually a legitimate trade to meet that demand, rather than continuing with a complete ban on trade which can only be satisfied via illegal trade.

The (unjustifiably) much-maligned “Ivory export quota system” introduced briefly by CITES in the 1980s demonstrated one very important point. The system certainly had its flaws and weaknesses, but what it showed was that, given a legal trade, the price of legitimate ivory went up and the price of illegal ivory plummeted. Most traders were falling over themselves trying to get supplies of ivory with valid CITES permits and avoiding anything else.

A further argument that has been put forward in favour of destruction is that this is exactly what is done with confiscated drugs and that ivory should be dealt with in the same way. However, this argument ignores the fact that the two types of material are totally different in several ways. The most important difference is that illegal drugs are destined to damage those people who wish to buy them, whereas ivory is destined to enrich the lives of purchasers. Drugs are destroyed because it would be counter to the rationale for their prohibition to allow them to re-enter trade. Ivory is not banned because it damages people, but because the way in which it is acquired damages wildlife.

Ultimately, perhaps the one single question that is of greatest significance is “is it believed that current efforts to destroy the value of ivory will succeed?” If the answer is an unequivocal “yes”, then clearly destruction of existing and future stocks can be justified. If the answer is “no”, then there can surely be no reason to continue with destruction for that purpose (i.e. destruction for other reasons, such as security, must be considered separately). If the answer is just “perhaps”, then a judgement has to be made on the basis of the pros and cons outlined above.


To burn or not to burn-that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in CITES to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous commerce

Or to take arms against a sea of poachers

And by opposing end them. To burn, to lose

No more-and by a burn to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That we are heir to. ‘Tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To burn, to waste-

To waste, perchance to regret: aye, there’s the rub,

For in that waste what regrets may come

When we have shuffled off this CITES coil.


Chris Huxley is a zoologist, elephant expert and past secretariat of CITES