Andrew Dobson & The Ivory Trade

Gabrielle Hammell
Elephant Listening Project
4 min readApr 9, 2018
Burning of confiscated elephant ivory in Nairobi National Park, Kenya (2016) [“Nairobi Ivory Burn” By Mwangi Kirubi is liscenced under CC BY-SA 4.0]

This past October, Andrew Dobson gave a guest lecture at Cornell University on “Elephants, Ivory and the Wildlife Trade” that was attended by many currently working for the Elephant Listening Project. Dobson teaches Ecology, Wildlife Disease and Conservation at Princeton University and has worked with prominent elephant researchers such as Joyce Poole and Katarzyna Nowak.

Dobson introduced the moral dilemmas involved in the conservation of African elephants, where the process of balancing the competing interests of elephant lives and human well-being is intricate and complex. Not only are elephants a nuisance to local people and their farms, the economic value of their tusks is attractive for people trying to feed their families. Unfortunately, killing the animal is usually the first step of ivory harvesting. The ivory trade in its current state is a network of largely illegal hunting (poaching) that has drastically reduced the number of elephants on our planet, and this is where Dobson chose to narrow his focus for much of his lecture. He expressed his frustration that the discussion around estimating a sustainable ivory harvesting rate has largely been a numbers game dominated by economists. Dobson warned against making assumptions about the population dynamics of such an intelligent and emotionally capable animal without the input of ecologists and biologists. Elephants have a “beautifully complicated mating system”¹ that makes it impossible to predict how they will respond to dramatic losses by ivory harvesting through mathematical equations alone.

Ivory harvesting is currently operating at an unsustainable rate and it is getting more and more difficult for elephant populations to bounce back, especially because much of the hunting is illegal. Ivory bans and regulations are quite controversial, and the ability to comprehensively develop and enforce policies is limited. Dobson noted that The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is the body responsible for managing all international trade of plants and animals but the 3-year interval between meetings and its annual budget of a mere $5 million makes it difficult to allocate resources and attention to the ivory trade. To contribute to the discussion of developing legal ivory harvesting policies, he suggested that hunting older elephants with larger tusks would generate a greater ivory yield than hunting younger elephants with smaller tusks. This would reduce the impact of ivory harvesting on elephant populations because fewer elephants would be killed for comparable amounts of ivory. It should be noted that this is a controversial opinion, and some research indicates that removing older, more experienced elephants from the reproductive pool would have damaging effects on elephant populations because of their roles in passing down important social knowledge². Some researchers have also found that males may not begin successfully mating until about 35–40 of age³, so disproportionately removing older males may also hinder reproductive rates.

Dobson also discussed the challenges faced by conservation strategies separate from those related to regulating the ivory trade. He acknowledged that different elephant populations are experiencing varying degrees of population growth/decline, and there is no one-size-fits-all population management strategy. Ecotourism is one such strategy that allows visitors to see (and sometimes interact with) endangered species for a fee that goes towards funding conservation efforts. This has been effective at generating support in some areas but cannot operate in regions where elephants are not as accessible or accustomed to humans. It is also difficult to outsmart these animals. In order to keep elephants within protected reserves, it is becoming more popular to set up beehives and “chili fences” near park boundaries. Elephants are fearful of bees and repelled by the scent of chili peppers, so this theoretically keeps them from venturing too close to the edges of the reserves. While these tools have had encouraging results, Dobson argued that elephants are too intelligent to contain. They have remarkable memories and will migrate to areas they remember having gone to before for water during drought periods, which is an instinct that is difficult to overcome. Unfortunately, it is difficult to fully evaluate these strategies and ivory harvesting regulations with limited resources, especially because research in general is also becoming more dangerous: a friend of Dobson’s was murdered when he began investigating the movement of ivory into the U.S.

Dobson warned that we may not have elephants in 40 years if current poaching trends continue, and this situation is even more drastic in West Africa. We are running out of time and current conservation initiatives are under-funded and under-researched. He asked us the question: why do we spend so much money and time on space research instead of taking care of the planet we already have?

The full lecture can be viewed here:


¹Dobson, Andrew. “Elephants, Ivory and the Wildlife Trade.” Filmed October 2017 at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Video.

²McComb, Karen, Cynthia Moss, Sarah Durant, Lucy Baker, and Soila Sayialel. “Matriarchs As Repositories of Social Knowledge in African Elephants.” Science 292, no. 5516(2001): 491–494. DOI: 10.1126/science.1057895.

³Cooper, Dani. “Female elephants remain fertile in old age.” ABC Science, October 28, 2013.