Governments around the world have in recent years destroyed their seized stockpiles of illegal ivory, egged on by the World Wildlife Federation which believes it sends a signal to gangs that kill Elephants and Rhinos for their tusks. In January, Sri Lanka reportedly crushed 350 tusks, and in 2015 several tonnes were crushed in the US and China alone.
Now, don’t get me wrong, of course I condemn the killing of elephants and rhinos for their tusks and wish the end of the hunting gangs that kill these magnificent animals. But, but, but ….. crushing the seized ivory really does seem to me a bad idea because it drives up the price of illegal ivory and hence makes it more lucrative to kill more animals. Rather, the seized ivory should be sold to the end users by an independent international organisation, with the proceeds spent on something that helps elephants and rhinos, like a large nature reserve or a breeding program.
Think about it: selling the ivory to the end-users on the black market will reduce the prices and hence the incentives for gangs to kill more elephants and rhinos. So selling it to drive down the price and using the proceeds to help the animals has a double-benefit. All it needs is a two-track approach of selling to the same black-market users that other enforcement agencies will be trying to close down, ie we should sell to the users that the police can’t find. And in order to be able to do that, the entity selling it should be completely separate from the police.
Have things like this been done before? Certainly. A good example is a gun amnesty, whereby we pay for the illegal guns still owned by the general public, no questions asked: they have gotten away with it and rather than lose ourselves in moralizing, we pragmatically pay them for their guns so as to minimize the impact of their illegal activity on our society. Amnesties for previously undeclared taxes follow the same principle.
The current practice violates basic economics: by crushing the seized ivory, the authorities are driving up the price and condemning more elephants and rhinos to a horrible death. The moral crusaders of the World Wildlife Federation of course don’t mean to do this, but I do think their actions will have that unintended effect. A bit more pragmatism would help their cause.
Won’t selling it back to the black market stimulate that market? No it will not, because the proceeds are not helping the gangs that kill elephants. Rather, they satisfy the wish of those who buy the ivory from those gangs, and by doing so with the seized ivory, we would undercut the gangs. Of course we also want to punish the users, but that is separate from the question of the price of ivory paid by the users whom we cannot track down. By having one organisation selling to these ‘users we couldn’t find’ whilst having the law enforcement agencies going after both the gangs that supply new ivory and the end-users, we minimize the harm and the size of the market at the same time.
Would the same argument hold for things we don’t want to see to used, like hard-drugs? No, because in the case of hard-drugs what is objected to is not the actual production, but rather the consumption of drugs. So feeding that consumption by selling seized drugs would lead to the very behaviour we were trying to stop.
But this is not true for the ivory trade: we care about the elephants and the rhinos killed for their ivory, not about the ivory usage on its own. To see this, imagine that we could make artificial ivory that would be identical to the real thing. Well, then of course we indeed should produce lots of it and saturate the market so as to make killing elephants and rhinos uneconomical. So because we don’t really care about the use of ivory, but rather the ways in which gangs procure it, we should have no qualms about selling the illegal stocks.
Of course, we should at the same time try to close down the illegal ivory trade and use, ie we should encourage China to close down its ivory markets and declare the use of ivory a taboo (which it is now doing!) and we should certainly also egg on the police forces to go after any ivory users they can find. This is why we need the selling of the seized ivory be done by a separate organization that is not into law enforcement.
We should hence be pragmatic about the fact that our police cannot yet find all the ivory users and sell them our stockpiles of seized ivory.