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PNAS Paper Suggests Global Ivory Sales Being Driven by New Ivory Rather Than Ivory Stockpiles

In the wake of publication of a new paper on ivory forensics in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Wildlife Conservation Society Vice President for Species Conservation Dr. Elizabeth Bennett (not one of the study’s authors) provides commentary on the paper’s key findings in the video Q&A above, which is transcribed below.

Liz, what is the importance of this paper and what have we learned from it?

What we’ve learned is that ivory, once it’s poached from elephants in Africa, is going very rapidly straight into the trade, and straight toward the markets. This is all new ivory that is getting caught going into the illegal markets. It’s not old ivory from stockpiles. And that’s somewhat of a surprise. We thought that stockpiles were probably leaking into the market. And this paper is showing that no, it’s not. This is all fresh ivory that’s being accumulated into bigger loads, and then sent straight to markets.

Is this going to change the way we have to fight illegal ivory?

It’s not necessarily going to change the way we fight. What it’s doing is reinforcing that we’re actually doing the right thing at the moment. The reason that ivory from stockpiles isn’t going in – we don’t know whether that’s because they’re being well protected or because over the last few years there’ve been all these huge initiatives to burn or crush ivory stockpiles because of the worry that they were feeding the illegal market.

This paper shows that they’re not. So probably destroying them may well be the right thing to do. It’s certainly helping. And the other thing that we have been pushing for a while – and that’s lately gone through the IUCN Congress and the CITES Conference as resolutions – is calling on countries to close their domestic ivory markets. And that’s clearly what needs to be done. And so basically what this is doing is reinforcing the fact that we’re on the right track.

Does the frequent bad news about elephants get you down sometimes?

Generally, no, because I think there’s always hope out there. At sites where there’s good enforcement, we know we’re protecting elephants. And we know that the world is changing. The US now has an almost total ban on domestic ivory trade. China has announced that it’s going to do the same. There are other countries that are also doing the same. So the momentum is moving in the right direction. Now what we need is for all that policy action and all that good will to result in fewer elephants killed on the ground. We’re not there yet, but clearly everything is lining this up to move in that direction.