Destroying Illegally Poached Ivory Seems Like A Big Mistake

Sri Lankan elephants are tethered outside the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo on November 15, 2013.

Photo by Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is crushing a whole bunch of ivory that it seized from people involved in the illegal poaching and smuggling of tusks from endangered animals. They say they’re doing this “to send a clear message that the United States will not tolerate ivory trafficking and the toll it is taking on elephant populations, particularly in Africa.”

That’s a great message to send, but I think it’s difficult not to worry that the policy will achieve the complete opposite result. By destroying the ivory, you create even more ivory scarcity and increase the incentives for future poaching. It seems like the more reasonable approach would be to arrest and punish human beings who are committing crimes, and then sell the seized ivory and use the proceeds to finance more anti-poaching efforts. The FWS considers this in their fact sheet on the crushing, and replies that “selling the ivory stockpile and allowing it to enter the marketplace could contribute to increased elephant poaching and stimulate even more consumer demand for ivory.”

They then further reason that since seized ivory is never sold, destroying the ivory “has no impact on the overall supply and does not create any incentive for poaching.”

But via Tyler Cowen, a 2000 paper by Michael Kremer and Charles Morcom offers a hybrid solution. They say don’t sell the ivory and don’t destroy it either. Instead stockpile the ivory and say it’ll be dumped on the market if the elephant population falls below some critical threshold value.

Either way, it’s hard to see what this crushing accomplishes. It narrows the Fish and Wildlife Service’s future options, at the margins increases the incentive for future smuggling, and all simply to “send a message” about government disapproval of something that’s already illegal.