By Michael Schwartz
The conservation organization Save the Elephant’s recent claim of a strong association between the sharp decline in raw ivory prices and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September pledge to close China’s domestic ivory markets may be inaccurate, says Daniel Stiles, a conservationist and veteran ivory researcher based in Kenya.
According to Stiles, Save the Elephants’ founder and CEO Iain Douglas-Hamilton commissioned a study on the price of ivory in to verify the findings of an earlier study funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society and led by Stiles.
The WCS funded study, “An Analysis of Ivory Demand Drivers,” by Stiles and coauthors Rowan Martin, Brendan Moyle, and Wei Ji, has not yet been published, but a draft version was previously available. (The full report by Save the Elephants, led by ivory researchers Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, also hasn’t yet been published.)
Stiles notes that his team’s findings of drastically reduced prices of raw ivory occurred well before China made the announcement that it would close domestic markets.
“[Save the Elephants] knew that prices had fallen by more than half in May, because I told Esmond Martin the results of study,” Stiles says.
“We found that black market prices in May had crashed to $442 per pound ($973 per kilogram). I even sent him a copy of the report for his comments. So to say that the price drop occurred in November partly as the result of the Chinese government’s pledge to ban ivory trade is disingenuous.”
According to the Stiles et al. study, raw ivory prices rose from 2008 to 2012, primarily because Chinese investors “shifted from stocks and property to commodities,” coinciding with the global financial crisis.
It wasn’t until 2013 that the price of ivory began to fall, which also coincided with Chinese investors getting out of commodities as economic conditions improved.
“The gold price curve in China from 2007 to 2014 fits the black market raw ivory price curve very closely,” Stiles says.
On their China trip late last year, Martin and Vigne are reported to have found a strong drop in Chinese consumer demand for ivory.
But according to Stiles, “We did not find a drop in demand in the large illegal ivory market sector, which mainly operates on the Internet and person-to-person. It involves primarily cheaper items, like jewelry, chopsticks, and small carvings.
Stiles says the study team did find a big drop in demand “in the much smaller legal sector, which sells the large, expensive, high quality pieces—the pieces that wealthy people invest in.”
These pieces, he says, are sold in shops, like the ones Martin and Vigne surveyed. According to Stiles, ivory seems no longer to be an investment vehicle, and President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is affecting that same luxury segment of the ivory market.
The Stiles et al. study concluded that previous claims that insatiable consumer demand was the main driver of elephant poaching were unfounded.
Out of more than 2,600 tons of illegal ivory exported between 2002 and 2014, the researchers found, up to 1,900 tons could have entered Far Eastern black markets, with 480 tons going elsewhere.
“That massive amount of ivory—1,900 tons—was not processed and purchased by consumers,” Stiles says. “Our statistical modeling concluded that well over 1,000 tons remains in raw form in private stockpiles. This strongly suggests that speculation was at work. Investors were hoarding raw tusks, betting that prices would rise.”
The report that the Stiles team produced is highly technical, but conclusions suggest that perhaps previous ideas about the causes of the elephant poaching crisis and its solutions should be reassessed.
Michael Schwartz is a freelance journalist and African wildlife conservation researcher. He is also an honorary member of the Jane Goodall Institute and the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Uganda Poverty Conservation Learning Group.