National Geographic

TRAFFIC Responds to Blood Ivory: Ivory Worship

Following publication of the Blood Ivory/Ivory Worship story by Bryan Christy in National Geographic last October, Steven Broad of TRAFFIC wrote the following letter. Owing to space constraints in the magazine, it was impossible to publish Mr. Broad’s letter and Mr. Christy’s response in full. In the interests of furthering the discussion about the illegal elephant ivory trade, we’re posting the correspondence here.

Dear Sir,

“Blood Ivory” by Bryan Christy (National Geographic Magazine, October 2012) amplifies two major conclusions of the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS): the illicit ivory trade is escalating and that China is the main driver. But the article gives the false impression that this ivory trade monitoring tool, operated by TRAFFIC on behalf of Parties to CITES, is a problem, rather than a solution. Indeed, for more than 20 years ETIS has helped illuminate the murky world of illegal ivory trafficking. Even the key statement in the opening paragraph—seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years—is made possible thanks to the long-term, evidence-based analysis of ETIS.

Regrettably, the writer fundamentally misunderstands the design and analytical methods of ETIS. With seizure data, “what you see is what you get”, he seems to argue, not appreciating that the rigorous analysis to adjust for inherent bias allows us to “see through the raw data” and produce a robust contemporary portrait of the illegal trade. Further the writer implies that if a country does not provide ivory data, they duck notice or, alternatively, if they make lots of little seizures, they also get a reprieve. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In 2002, ETIS first identified China as the main driver of the illegal ivory trade—at a time when the world’s focus was still on Japan, and the number of ivory seizures involving China within the database stood at just 17 records. The article focuses on the Philippines, Thailand and China, all countries first indentified as significant players in the global ivory trade thanks to analysis from ETIS. Thailand, for example, has consistently rated as one of the top offenders where illegal ivory trade is permitted to flourish. Inexplicably, the article considers TRAFFIC’s advice to Thailand to take law enforcement action against the country’s retail ivory market as simply a move to “game ETIS” rather than deliver a blow to illegal trade in ivory.

ETIS indications of a declining illegal ivory trade trend following a legal ivory sale under CITES between three African countries and Japan in 1999 was backed up by analysis of thousands of seizure records. The article disputes these statistical findings, instead choosing to believe unspecified reports by unnamed NGOs, which claimed ivory trade had risen immediately following the sale, despite scant evidence to back up these claims.

And finally, to correct an error in your article, TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken did not “remain” in the room when NGOs were expelled from the CITES Standing Committee meeting in August 2011.

TRAFFIC, like the writer of this article, remains deeply concerned at the current rising levels of illegal ivory trade and the associated poaching of elephants. It is a situation that demands global action, but action that should be guided by analysis of the many years of ivory trade monitoring data accumulated within ETIS.

Yours Faithfully,

Steven Broad

Executive Director, TRAFFIC International


Bryan Christy’s response:

The ETIS program run by TRAFFIC is one important tool for understanding the illegal ivory trade. However, it is not “a solution,” and overreliance on its results, especially in the case of the Japan Experiment and the question whether ivory sales cause ivory trafficking, has proved disastrous for elephants, as we detail in our story. Even China said illegal trade went up after the Japan sale, a point rejected by ETIS. [In March of this year TRAFFIC issued its latest ETIS report, concluding that illicit ivory trade for the period 1997 to 2007 did not decline, but rather “the salient pattern is really one showing relative stability.”]

As for whether ETIS Director Tom Milliken “remained” in the room when other NGOs were expelled from an important CITES ivory discussion in 2011, Mr. Milliken did initially leave the room with other NGOs, but he was then asked to return “to deliver his latest ETIS results” while other NGOs waited outside.




  1. Fiona Gordon
    New Zealand
    September 15, 2013, 7:43 am

    I have poured over the TRAFFIC reports presented at CITES COP16 and I still question why there seems to be an insistence in illustrating how the two CITES approved ivory sales coincide with distinctly different behavior in the illicit trade in ivory data, and then concluding that “it is not possible to present an unambiguous result in terms of establishing a correlation between one-off sale events under CITES and increasing illicit trade in ivory, much less establishing causality.” (CoP16 Doc. 53.2.2 (Rev. 1) para 40).
    Surely it is not surprising that the illicit trade in ivory data is so different both before and after each of the sales. It is nonsense to lump both sales together as if putting “apples with apples” and then analyse the data to determine if “sale events” present any correlations or cause and effect relationships between the “sale events” and the behavior of the illicit ivory trade. Each sale should be looked at separately, and differently, as each can be expected to show different correlations with the behavior of the illicit ivory trade data. The differences between the sales include: (a) context – the1998 was a “one-off sale”, the 2008 was not. Clearly, by the mere fact that it was the “second” sale, the 2008 sale cannot be considered another “one-off sale”. (b) The amount of ivory sold was vastly different: (approx. 50 ton 1998) and approx. 110 ton (2008). (c) The purchasers of each sale are vastly different: (sheer population size, culture, potential demand for ivory, economies, etc) 1998 sale to Japan, 2008 sale to Japan and China.
    I would urge TRAFFIC to consider the data in a fresh way. Look at each sale separately, look at CITES discussion timeframes. There certainly appears to be shifts in the behavior of the illicit ivory trade that coincide with specific CITES discussions, the approved “one-off” sale events. These need to be examined more closely.
    It would seem logical that the initial sale in 1998 would set up anticipation of a future sale, but not necessarily – the 1998 sale was touted as a “one-off” and an “experiment”, there are clearly incentives for all involved in the ivory trade (be it poacher or permitted ivory carver to ) to ensure that poaching and illicit trade did not increase directly following the 1998 sale.
    “In the years following this event [1998 sale], a marginal but statistically insignificant increase in illicit ivory trade can be seen as measured by overall trade activity and relative weight, respectively. The degree of increase is slightly more pronounced in the Weight Index (Figure 6) than in the Transaction Index (Figure 4). Overall, however, given the confidence intervals depicted by the vertical lines in either figure, (meaning that there is a 90% probability that the trend falls within the lines), the salient pattern is really one showing relative stability for the decade spanning 1997 through 2007. “ (CoP16 Doc. 53.2.2 (Rev. 1))
    CITES discussions on a second sale started in 2005. TRAFFIC reports that “… illegal ivory trade activity remained at or slightly above 1998 levels up to 2006. Thereafter, a gradual increase in illegal ivory trade activity commences, becoming progressively greater in each successive year, with a major surge in 2011. Looked at another way, Figure 4 shows that the frequency of an illegal ivory trade transaction in 2011 was roughly three times greater than the level of illegal trade activity found in 1998″….”A pronounced upward trend in illicit trade is particularly evident from 2007 onwards…”
    Is it coincidence that the CITES discussions on a second sale started in 2005?
    Add to the backdrop of the TRAFFIC data that CITES has been working on a Decision Making Mechanism for Trade in Ivory. – eg. July 2008 CITES Decision Dec.14.77 to propose decisions on Mechanism for Trade in Ivory by CoP16 (2013); 2010 CITES Decision Dec. 14.77 Implementation -­‐ to contract work by October 2011.
    Interestingly, the time frames around the CITES Decisions and discussions regarding a Decisions Making Mechanism for Trade in Ivory coincide with the increase (2007 onwards) and surge (2011) in illicit trade that TRAFFIC reports. Is there an anticipation of the completion of the October 2011 contract for work on a Mechanism for Trade in Ivory?
    These and other examples of how specific discussions of CITES appear to coincide with TRAFFIC reported “statistically significant” changes in the illicit ivory trade –but these have not been presented by TRAFFIC. I urge TRAFFIC to look again at the data and analyse each sale separately, each is a distinctly different event on so many levels. The different behavior in the illicit ivory trade around each sale may actually show correlations when the context of each sale is taken into account. Perhaps there can be no cause and effect established, but correlation alone can still be used to inform decision makers.
    One thing is clear: “Illicit ivory trade activity and the weight of ivory behind this trade is now roughly three times greater than it was in 1998 (Figures 4 and 6). When these findings from ETIS are viewed together with the results of the CITES MIKE programme, it can be argued that elephants are facing the most serious conservation crisis since the 1989 trade ban was imposed under the Convention.” Source: CITES CoP16 Doc. 53.2.2 (Rev. 1) – p. 25. (CoP 16 March 2013)

    A few other points:
    “40.The most recent one-off sale under CITES took place in October/November 2008 and involved China and Japan purchasing 107,770 kg of raw ivory valued at nearly USD15.5 million from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe under highly conditional circumstances originally agreed at CoP12 in 2002 and then modified in the context of an “African compromise” to include Zimbabwe at CoP14 in 2007. The auctions transpired in late 2008 and the ivory from these shipments did not arrive at their Asian destinations until January 2009. Both the Transaction Index (Figure 4) and the Weight Index (Figure 6) demonstrate a progressively sharper and statistically significant increase in illicit ivory trade from 2008 onwards. This result is contrary to what is observed in the period following the first one-off sale. With conflicting trade patterns, it is not possible to present an unambiguous result in terms of establishing a correlation between one-off sale events under CITES and increasing illicit trade in ivory, much less establishing causality. “
    Comment: Lets see the “unambiguous result” please, let us contemplate what those results may mean. Decision makers need all the information to consider – and then they can ask better questions and make better decisions . Are decision makers looking for a cause and effect relationship “beyond reasonable doubt”, or are they looking for a “on the balance of probabilities”. This is important – environmental policy decisions based solely on evidence providing a “beyond reasonable doubt” scenario can often occur far too late.
    “42……If one-off sales of ivory under CITES were the most important factor driving illicit trade, one would expect Japan to also be showing increased involvement in illicit ivory trade transactions, but that is not the case. Thus, other factors – for example, better law enforcement, changing cultural practices and fashion, more public awareness or economic stagnation – are simultaneously occurring that serve to mitigate, hide or totally dominate the impact, if any, of the one- off sales.”
    Comment: Can only state this if consider the sales as similar events (which they are not) and with the presumption that the illicit ivory trade should behave the same after each sale (I consider this is not the correct presumption to make). Why would one expect Japan to also be showing increased involvement illicit ivory trade transactions? A closer examination of the Japanese culture, economy, population statistics etc may provide reasons why this is not the case.
    “43….. In conclusion, the fact that the trade patterns for China and Japan are essentially poles apart again strongly suggests that other factors beyond or in combination with the one-off sales under CITES are responsible for exacerbating or mitigating ivory consumption in these two widely different end-use markets.”
    Comment: Again, the two sales are distinctly different events when you consider the context of each sale. Importantly, the second sale has to be considered within the context of the first sale too –having a second “one-off” sale surely sets the president or at least sets up an anticipation of future sales. I note that this statement does not rule out an influence from the sale events, it just states that if there is an effect it cannot be separated out from other factors that may also have influence.

    A response from Steven Broard and Bryan Christy would be welcome…I’d really appreciate some answers.

    Kind regards,
    Fiona Gordon NZ

  2. Malcolm Ryen
    August 16, 2013, 11:49 am

    I would also like to comment on two issues:
    1) In 1997 the NGO i was working at the time put 5 GPS radio-collars on 5 elephants in Tarangire N.P. Poaching had not been an issue in the past 7-8 year in the park. Within 6 months, the 2 elephants collared in the southern part of the park, where no tourist ever go, were poached. It is not a big sample obviously to connect the 1997 one off sale to Japan to increase in poaching, though it is undoubted that poaching started again from 1997 and soared to incredible proportion from 2006-7 onward once China was allowed as a buyer. Around 2005-6 it was big in the southern part of Selous G.R. and by 2008-9 it arrived up in the north, where the photographic area is. With an incredible peak in 2009, just before Tanzania was requesting in 2010 to sell its stock pile of ivory, that luckily was rejected by the international community for one vote, but not thanks to Cites itself that through its report from the panel of expert, incredibly, considering what was written in the report itself, concluded that Tanzania should have been allowed to sell. Carcasses were all over the photographic area, you would hear guns shot near tourist camps with the results that in 2013 elephants have become a lucky sightings.. From 2006 to 2013 we have lost 40 to 50,000 elephants in the Selous alone, around 70% of the population.
    2) I understand the need to use official data, though they are not always real, often inflated or manipulated in order to fit the general purpose of a country. The 2009 official data for the counts of elephants in Selous were rejected by the international community (but published by WWF), but only because they were so evidently inflated (population growth of 25% and carcass ration increased 3 times…). How many previous official data should have also been rejected?
    Unfortunately there is a lot of politics and money involved and the reality is too often concealed using the right numbers..

  3. Malcolm Ryen
    August 16, 2013, 8:12 am

    Well this in the link below is a map that WWF has elaborated I imagine using Traffic and Etis data since Traffic is an extension of WWF

    The map shows China is yellow and not red, something is wrong.. The transit countries come out to be red, because that is where the ivory is caught, but the real destinations, where they seize very little, they come out almost clean..

    So I think this is an example on how these data need to be considered as numbers only, if they are not properly put in to the contest, numbers alone do not give the real picture..

    Tanzania is loosing 10,000 elephants a year and it is also yellow!! It is considered that in 2011 Africa lost 25-30,000 elephants by Traffic and Tanzania contributed more then 30% and it’s yellow??
    We, Tanzania, have lost around 50% of our elephants, approximately 50,000 in only 6 years and we are yellow?? Well then to become red what else do you have to do?

    But at the end of the day, when one see this map, thinks that Laos is much worse then China and Zambia much worse then Tanzania, so we need to review and re-elaborate the information available if we want to give a realistic picture of the situation