Illegal Ivory Seizures Reveal That Poaching Networks Are Becoming Stronger and More Organized

Two park rangers stand near the skeleton of a forest elephant who was killed by poachers in Gabon.

Over the past decade, the situation for wild elephants has become very dire. Between 2007 and 2014, African savannah elephant populations plummeted by 30 percent¹ ²and researchers estimate that their numbers are decreasing by roughly eight percent every year¹. In addition, between 2002 and 2011, African forest elephant populations dropped by 62%³. These declines are largely the result of increased poaching for ivory and are reflected in the trends of illegal ivory seizures by law enforcement. Analyses of these trends show that in addition to poaching being on the rise, wildlife trafficking rings have become stronger and the justice system has been largely ineffective in combatting the problem.

Between 1989 and 2013, there were over 18,000 recorded seizures of illegal ivory⁴. The amount of ivory seized and the number of seizures remained relatively stable between 1990 and 2007, but after that, the numbers shot up. Between 2007 and 2014, the amount of ivory seized more than doubled and the number of seizures tripled between 2009 and 2012⁴. The driving force behind this increase is a greater number of large-scale seizures, which contain over 500 kilograms of ivory. Before 2009, there was an average of five large-scale seizures per year, but after 2009 it rose to 15, with as many as 21 per year⁴. Since 2000 there have been around 150 documented large-scale seizures⁵.

The surge in large-scale ivory seizures is especially worrying since it indicates that organized criminal networks have a significant presence within the ivory trade⁶. Procuring such large amounts of ivory requires a sustained source of financial resources and substantial investment into transportation networks for procuring it from protected areas and transporting it to where it can be sold on the black market⁶. It also requires developing a stable system of corruption with governmental and law enforcement officials to prevent prosecution. This can usually only be done by established criminal organizations and therefore the amount of large-scale seizures is oftentimes used as a measure of how strong the illegal ivory trade is as a whole⁶.

To compound the problem, very few large-scale seizures result in the conviction of poachers and wildlife traffickers. Only 19.3% of the large-scale seizures that took place since 2000 resulted in a conviction. In Vietnam, the country with the highest amount of these seizures, less than seven percent resulted in a conviction⁵. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, this is very troubling since the only way to shut down established ivory trafficking networks is by prosecuting the ones who run them⁵. Ivory seizures are only a temporary setback for poachers and can even result in them moving to other locations that are less heavily policed.

While the overall picture does not look good, there are some examples of commendable work in this area. For example, in the Fuzhou City of Jiangxi, China, four ivory traffickers were convicted in 2015 and 2016 following the seizure of over 500 kg of ivory at a tollbooth and in a processing factory. They received prison sentences ranging from three to thirteen years and had up to $1.7 million of their assets seized⁵. In addition, in 2015, two ivory traffickers from Togo were given fines of nearly $200,000 and prison sentences of 22 months and two years. If the illegal ivory trade is to be stopped, more successful prosecutions are desperately needed⁵.

Wild elephant populations are in serious danger due to increased poaching and the increased organization, strength and efficiency of wildlife trafficking networks. Since the criminal justice system has, for the most part, been ineffectual in prosecuting these criminals, it is unlikely that established poaching networks will be broken up and shut down. As the damage caused by the illegal ivory trade continues to pile up, it is becoming abundantly clear that if something is not done soon, we stand the risk of losing these majestic animals forever.


¹1Chase, Michael J., Scott Schlossberg, Curtice R. Griffin, Philippe JC Bouché, Sintayehu W. Djene, Paul W. Elkan, Sam Ferreira et al. “Continent-wide survey reveals massive decline in African savannah elephants.” PeerJ 4 (2016): e2354.

²Maisels, Fiona, Samantha Strindberg, Stephen Blake, George Wittemyer, John Hart, Elizabeth A. Williamson, Rostand Aba’a et al. “Devastating decline of forest elephants in Central Africa.” PloS one 8, no. 3 (2013): e59469.

³Steyn, Paul. African Elephant Numbers Plummet 30 Percent, Landmark Survey Finds. National Geographic, August 21, 2016.

⁴Milliken, Tom. Illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn: an assessment to improve law enforcement under the wildlife TRAPS project. USAID, 2014.

⁵A Briefing on Large Scale Ivory Seizures and Convictions. Issue brief. August 2017. Accessed September 26, 2017.

Find out more about the Elephant Listening Project
Conserving the tropical forests of Africa through acoustic monitoring, sound science, and education, focusing on forest elephants

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.