How much is an 10 tonne tusker worth? Part 1: Demand.
US $2'100 a kilogram. That was the wholesale price paid on average by Chinese ivory processing factories for tusks weighing 1-5kg back in 2014. If you want the dead elephant appendage carved, decorated or made into jewelry, one small, polished tusk costs US $35,000 (2011 retail prices).
Both the volume of [legal and illegal] ivory and its prices on the open and black markets had been catapulting upwards from US $5/kg in 1989, the year of the CITES international trade ban, to US $120-$170/kg in 2002, and US $900/kg in 2010. In 2014, prices reached an all time high for Chinese ivory processing managers in Beijing, almost tripling from 2010 for the same sized tusk. These were the prices for the raw processing material, retail outlets were then selling ivory onto consumers for extortionate amounts.
The reasons for this major boom (matched by the boom in poaching) given by wildlife trade experts was simple demand increases by traffickers and traders. why? Well, from a meeting of delegates of African elephant range states in 2006, the Accra declaration was signed advocating a ban on trade in legal ivory. This guaranteed future scarcity, demand by traders and traffickers increased and there was an additional incentive to purchase poached ivory, which cost more due to higher bribery chargers required to export tusks illegally out of Africa and into Asia.
Furthermore, consumer demands also increased, between 2008 and 2014 Chinese nationals began to purchase ivory as an attractive investment commodity over that of bank interests, stocks, bonds and property during the global financial crisis.
Today the price has fallen, raw ivory is now worth on average US $1,100/kg. An online survey in China in May 2015 found black market sites selling tusks at US $973/Kg. So after these major increase in the last decade, why the 50% drop in less than a year? One report by Save The Elephant attributes the falling prices to the Chinese government's intent to close down the domestic ivory market.
“We will strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted.” - Zhao Shucong, head of China’s State Forestry Administration, May 2015
In September 2015 President Xi Jinping met with President Barack Obama in a state visit where both heads agreed to enact nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, as an effort to combat wildlife trafficking.
But a report by Stiles et al. questioned the proposed ban to be the reason for falling prices, due to that fact that they had been falling since the beginning of 2015, months before the President ever announced China's intent to phase out ivory.
It is important to note that from the survey the average weight of these illegal tusks found on trading website in 2015 was 14.2 kg, much larger then the 1-5kg tusks that were selling in 2014 for US $2,100. 'The Chinese researcher conducting the online survey, posing as a prospective buyer, reported that the sellers seemed anxious to sell their stocks and made price concessions easily'. Were sellers perhaps offloading their ivory stocks potentially in anticipation of the President announcement?
Or perhaps was it one of the other reasons suggested for the drop in ivory prices, including the growing awareness by Chinese consumers of the environmental impacts of buying ivory and China's recent financial crisis. More research and investigations, including continuous monitoring of ivory prices needs to occur before we know the truth. With all these reason and further speculation to factor in, it is difficult to predict future trends, and there is worryingly no reason why they prices would not climb again.
So who is actually in the black market to buy 'White Gold'?
According to a study, published by The National Geography Society and Globalscan, in August 2015, it is perhaps surprisingly the 18 to 34 year old age group from a lower to middle income bracket that are more inclined to purchase ivory.
These buyers are driven by an image of wealth and elevated socio-economic status that comes with owning ivory projects and giving ivory as gifts. Fueled by the perception that it is 'rare, precious, pure, beautiful, and exotic' it bestows status to not only the receiver but also the gift giver.
The survey interviews consumers from five countries known to have key ivory markets: China, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand and the USA.
Among these, China has the biggest market demands, the highest level of current ownership and the most positive perceptions of ivory as a desired material. Those who are purchasing small pieces of ivory do not believe it contributes significantly to overall demand and from the study 'it was clearly evident that many respondents use this belief to rationalize their own consumption'.
In contrast, as a potential backlash from increased awareness efforts, where campaigns have focused on the diminishing populations of elephants across Africa and Asia, Vietnamese buyers believe that the elephant population is declining so rapidly that as supply is dwindling individuals should buy as much ivory as they can now before stocks run out. This is an example of campaign tactics backfiring, and it is clear when moving forward to remember that what works in one part of the world will not necessarily work in another.
But what is the REAL COST OF IVORY?