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I did the first long-term study investigating illegal ivory traders. Here’s what I learned.

- April 18, 2018
A Zimbabwe National Parks official holds an elephant tusk during a tour of the country’s ivory stockpile at the Zimbabwe National Parks headquarters in Harare on June 2, 2016. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)

As if Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have enough to worry about, Facebook is being accused of harboring yet another illicit activity: making it easy for international wildlife traffickers to sell elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger teeth, reports the Associated Press. Since 2010, researchers say, the illicit ivory trade has been at record high levels. Although the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) reports that elephant poaching in Africa has declined each year since it peaked in 2011, the number of animals killed for ivory each year remains higher than a decade ago.

But who exactly are these traffickers?

Reporters and researchers alike usually blame this trade on “international crime syndicates” or “multinational criminal gangs.” Such statements are drawn from confiscation data. When shipments are seized, they often find more than 220 pounds of illegal ivory at a time. For example, in 2009, 2010 and 2011 respectively, eight, nine and 17 shipments of more than 1,760 pounds of ivory were seized, totaling almost 61 tons of ivory in three years. Those who analyze these data almost universally conclude that such enormous shipments constitute the dominant pattern, revealing “the involvement of international criminal syndicates in the trade operating through sophisticated networks that link Africa with Asia.”

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But is that the whole story? Until now, no one has undertaken in-depth research among illegal ivory traders themselves. My recently published research in the British Journal of Criminology aimed to fill this gap.

How I did my research

Since 2004, I have been doing long-term research on all forms of illegal trade in the border region of Uganda and Congo, through which I’ve come to know a wide group of traders. Over time, they have come to view me as trustworthy and reliable — and introduced me to others. Because of this relationship, between 2012 and 2017 I followed the activities of a range of illegal ivory traders in Uganda, a nation known as a transit country for ivory. CITES calls Uganda a country of “primary concern” in the illicit ivory trade: It is listed as one of the 10 countries worldwide “linked to the greatest illegal ivory trade flows since 2012.”

Ivory poaching is decentralized and diffuse

I came away from this research with three main conclusions.

First, the illegal ivory trade isn’t organized by a transnational crime syndicate or international gang. Rather, local traders buy and sell from and to a variety of sources, depending on what opportunities arise. Particular locations — such as border towns — act as key nodes, destinations and transit hubs where ivory is smuggled, stored and resold. Traders and middlemen keep it in storage until conditions are right for shipment and sale, watching factors including market price, demand and the general security situation.

Second, the transnational trade does not oversee and guide ivory poaching. Rather, international ivory traders largely depend on local black-market traders. These local ivory deals are part of, and rely on, historically embedded trading networks to buy, move and store not just ivory but also other illegal commodities such as minerals, and smuggled gasoline or cigarettes. Local traders therefore connect the poachers with the transnational middlemen, selling the ivory to international dealers from a range of nations, including China, Turkey and South Africa.

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Third, these local traders have different degrees of power, drawn from their connections with individual government officials. Some traders have long-standing relationships with lower-level government officials such as customs officials and police officers. These traders limit their activities to “their” region. This is the case for most traders in the Uganda-Congo border, who largely limit their activities to buying, smuggling and selling ivory along the border.

Other traders have more powerful connections with rogue high-level security officials. This allows them to trade ivory over longer distances, including moving it through more sensitive border points or airports. Thus they can sell more ivory at higher prices, and operate even when the climate is more hostile, as when confiscations increase.

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The international market doesn’t control the local traders

Chinese buyers and Facebook pages may be important for the illegal ivory trade; without a market, there would be no reason for the supply and trade. But transnational crime relies on local actors. Local actors are the ones who supply the illegal ivory, and are in turn dependent on international actors to sell it. For this, local traders have various degrees of power and autonomy. For those attempting to curb this crime, it’s essential to understand that local traders are not a unitary group. Understanding and responding to the illegal ivory trade must take their motivations and actions seriously.

Kristof Titeca (@kristoftiteca) is a lecturer at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp.