The trade in Asian ivory

The illegal trade in Asian elephant ivory is obscured by its much smaller quantities in the markets compared to African ivory (remember, only male Asian elephants may have tusks, and the overall elephant population in Asia is only one-tenth that of the African species). It is virtually impossible at present to distinguish Asian ivory from African ivory; only a few expert carvers seem to have this ability. Hence, any discussion of the international trade in ivory has almost entirely focused on African ivory and ignored its implications for the Asian elephant and trade in its tusks. Market surveys of the ivory trade in Asian countries do not differentiate between Asian and African ivories on sale, although it is clear that much of the ivory in countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam comes from local elephants.

The relationship of the illegal trade in Asian ivory to the much larger (potential) trade in African ivory thus has a bearing on the conservation of the Asian elephant. There are several theoretical possibilities of the relationship between the two sources of ivory in the trade. Any rise in the appetite of consumers for ivory would be reflected in increasing flows in laundered Asian ivory, even though the bulk of the supplies could still continue to be of African origin. Thus, the flow of Asian ivory would closely track that of African ivory. There could be a certain preference for Asian ivory, based on its perceived or real superior qualities, hence, there would be a steadier demand for this ivory compared to that for the African product. There could also be a certain minimum demand for ivory, irrespective of source or legality, in consumer nations. Any shortfall in supply of African ivory could result in increased demand for Asian ivory and hence put more pressure on the Asian elephant. The domestic demand for ivory in Asian range states could also drive the trade in relation to the availability and price of imported African ivory.

No clear answers are available as to which of these links may be driving the trade in Asian ivory. One point that emerges is that a price difference has always existed between Asian ivory (in the Indian and East Asian markets) and African ivory (in the international market), the former being more expensive. I noted that, during the period after Indian independence in 1947, the landed cost of imported African ivory became progressively higher due to stiff customs duties, even though a plentiful supply was cheaply available outside the country. The large number of Indian carvers thus began to utilize both legal ivory from Indian elephants (supplied by the government) as well as to obtain tusks from locally poached elephants at rates cheaper than landed African ivory. They also continued to import some legal African ivory, which could then be used as a cover for the illegal Indian ivory being traded. This could at least partly explain the poaching of Indian elephants during the 1970s and 1980s. The Indian government, of course, has banned the internal trade in Indian ivory since 1986 and banned the import of African ivory or its local sale once the 1989 international ban came into effect.

The detailed survey of the Asian ivory markets by Vivek Menon and Ashok Kumar also brought out a little known fact: Ivory from Asian elephants was considered superior in Japan for manufacturing hankos and thus commanded a higher price. Japanese carvers were able to distinguish various grades of African and Asian ivory, primarily on considerations of its degree of "softness" or "hardness." Asian hard ivory was considered to possess the best qualities for ink absorption and delivery by the signature seals. Even though there is no scientific basis as yet for differentiating the physical characteristics of modern ivory, any such perception of quality by the trade would be reflected in pricing and eventually in poaching pressures on regional populations.

This suggests that a certain quantity of Asian ivory would continue to be smuggled into Japan. At the same time, the possibility of a rise in demand for illegal Asian ivory if supplies from Africa dry up cannot be ruled out. Clearly, a thorough analysis of the dynamics of the trade in Asian ivory is urgently needed.

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