Is burning poached ivory good for elephants?

Burning confiscated ivory to send a signal to poachers is on the increase. But does it help elephants? Photograph: Dai Kurokawa/EPA

Conservationists raise serious questions about the widespread incineration of ivory stockpiles confiscated from poachers

At the end of April, Kenya incinerated 105 tonnes of confiscated elephant ivory, aiming to send a clear signal to the poachers and public alike: killing elephants for their tusks and buying ivory-based products is simply not acceptable.

But do such spectacles really help conserve elephants? Or could they, in fact, be counterproductive?

In an article published today in the journal Nature, conservationists raise precisely these questions of this practice. “It’s really escalated in recent years,” says Duan Biggs, a research fellow at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “Yet there seems to be no evaluation or monitoring of whether they are working to conserve elephants.

The first, very public incineration of poached elephant ivory occurred in Kenya in 1989, a stunt that underscored the ban on the trade in African elephant ivory that came into force in 1990. “The tusks were stacked like a tepee, twenty feet high, the design of a pyrotechnist who specialized in creating fires for movies,” wrote journalist Raymond Bonner of this event in At the Hand of Man.

Since then, some 21 countries and territories have crushed or burned more than 263 tonnes of confiscated ivory, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. This amounts to around 26,000 elephants.

“The destruction of ivory stockpiles reflects the concerted international efforts to eradicate both the legal and illegal ivory trade once and for all,” says Charlie Mayhew, CEO and founder of the conservation charity Tusk. “Indeed all of this pressure had led to two of the biggest ivory consuming countries, the US and China, announcing their intention to halt domestic trade in ivory.”

But the escalation of the practice of destroying ivory, with 86% of the 263 tonnes of tusks being taken out in the last 5 years, led Biggs to ask questions about its efficacy. “Destroying ivory stockpiles risks a perverse outcome,” he and his colleagues write in their correspondence to Nature. “Ivory becomes rarer, fetching higher prices and increasing poaching and illegal stockpiling.”

Could burning ivory really increase poaching?

In an interesting paper published a decade ago in PloS Biology, Franck Courchamp and colleagues argued that “the human predisposition to place exaggerated value on rarity fuels disproportionate exploitation of rare species, rendering them even rarer and thus more desirable, ultimately leading them into an extinction vortex.” The frequency that I find myself referring to this paper is pretty dispiriting.

Biggs and his colleagues are not necessarily saying that this is happening with ivory and elephants. What they are saying is that we just don’t know. “We are unaware of any attempts to track and evaluate the impacts of these burns on the demand for, and the price of, illegal ivory,” he says. “If we believe in evidence-based decision making, it’s terrible if these things are not being tracked.”

Unless someone can make the case for less information rather than more, I can’t find the flaw in this argument. Why would you run an experiment and decide not to collect any data?