John Frederick Walker

How China Could Decide the Future of Africa’s Elephants

Posted in conservation news, elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on September 21, 2013

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My most recent piece on the poaching crisis, “How China Could Decide the Future of Africa’s Elephants,” argues for regulated legal ivory trade as a means to engage with China in the elimination of trafficking in tusks.  It’s just been posted on the National Geographic News Watch blog, A Voice for Elephants. Here’s the link.

Rethinking Ivory: Why Trade in Tusks Won’t Go Away

Posted in conservation news, elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on June 10, 2013

Tsavo West Ivory BurnMy latest article, “Rethinking Ivory,” appears in the Summer 2013 issue of World Policy Journal, and is now available online. It challenges the conventional wisdom on the ivory trade and argues that a well-regulated commerce in tusks could offer a realistic way forward for elephant conservation.

The link is here:

JFW ivory interview on Austrian Broadcasting Corporation

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on March 13, 2013

Elephant poaching has been much discussed recently in global media, and at the just-concluding CITES conference in Bangkok, for good reason — elephant killings are at an alarming high.


I was interviewed by Chris Cummins on Austrian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio station FM4, which has an English language news magazine program called “Reality Check.”  The piece is “The Ivory Wars,” and I’m included in the 15 minute podcast (starting at 12:30 minutes into it), and also in the story  that accompanied it. Click here for the podcast/story, which covers the crisis, and what might be done to address it.

A New Reference Database to Identify Origin of Elephant Ivory: Implications for Ivory Trading

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on November 29, 2010

ScienceDaily reports that scientists at at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz are working on an innovative reference database to allow the identification of the origin of elephant ivory.  The research sounds encouraging—it could be a useful tool in the fight against illegal trade in ivory.

But the report also suggests how more precise ivory identification in the future might also make a limited, regulated and workable ivory trade possible.  Here’s the key passage in the section “Trade as necessity—the necessity of trade”:

“…the countries of the southern part of Africa in particular are increasingly arguing that they should be allowed to trade freely in ivory from the stocks they already hold so that they can raise the finances they urgently need for nature conservancy measures. Unfortunately, this method of generating income would not be without its problems: If free trade is permitted, it would become increasingly difficult to differentiate between legal and illegal ivory at the point of sale and the legalized trade could be used as a cover for ivory smuggling and poaching. Isotope maps provide an effective way of resolving this dilemma.”

From: “Reference database to identify origin of elephant ivory.” ScienceDaily 26 November 2010. 29 November 2010 < /releases/2010/11/101126094538.htm>

JFW at the Brookfield Zoo

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on September 20, 2010

I’ll be giving a lecture on ivory and elephants and doing a booksigning at the Brookfield Zoo this coming Tuesday evening as part of their Fall Lecture Series:

“Ivory’s Ghosts”
John Frederick Walker
Tuesday, September 21

“Author Walker spent five years researching the story of ivory’s enormous impact on its most important source–African elephants–and on human history. Today, the question of what to do with growing stockpiles of legitimate ivory from elephants that die of natural causes is at the heart of an ongoing international debate. Join Walker for an exploration of “white gold”–and the future of elephants.”

The lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. in Brookfield Zoo’s Discovery Center.

For more information, please visit

Rethinking Ivory: An Exchange with Wasser, et al.

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on September 2, 2010

In advance of the 2010 CITES meeting, Samuel Wasser and a number of other prominent elephant researchers published a much-discussed Policy Forum piece (“Elephants, ivory, and trade”) in the March 12 issue of SCIENCE, reproduced on the Save the Elephants site (click here.)

Ivory trade researcher Daniel Stiles and I wrote the following letter, which appeared in the June 25, 2010 issue of SCIENCE (and was reproduced on the Save the Elephants site here, along with a response from Wasser et al.).  Both are given below:

Letters to the Editor
Science Vol 328
June 25, 2010

THE POLICY FORUM BY S. WASSER ET AL. (“Elephants, ivory, and trade,” 12 March, p. 1331) overlooks several points that bear on the issue of whether the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) should allow legal ivory sales. There is no proof that the elephant population is dropping. The two citations given offer no clear evidence. The IUCN Red List categorizes Loxodonta africana as “vulnerable,” below two levels of higher threat, and its population trend is described as “increasing” (1).

We agree with the statement that “most of Africa lacks adequate controls for protection of elephants,” but rather than target legal ivory sales, CITES should take steps to increase anti-poaching and trade enforcement. Legal ivory sales have not been shown to stimulate poaching (2–4), despite widespread media claims that link the two. Focus on this issue takes attention away from other factors that drive illegal killings, such as unregulated domestic markets, ivory demand, corruption, and human-elephant conflict.

Wasser et al. state that “[i]n the absence of data, precautionary principles should be applied.” Yet precautionary principles can be manipulated to suit one’s purposes. The authors assume that a legal trade might lead to irreversible elephant losses. What if the assumption were the opposite—that not allowing trade would lead to increased poaching? This scenario is hardly far-fetched. In the absence of legal supply, ivory demand will inevitably be met by killing elephants illegally. The authors state, accurately, that “oneoff” sales introduce uncertainty into the market place, but they do not acknowledge that there is another way to reduce uncertainty other than having no sales: Allow a regular, annually recurrent sale to settle the markets, reduce prices, and lower motivation to poach and buy illegal ivory.

We believe that both no sales and “oneoff” sales are harmful for elephant conservation and, given suff cient institutional support and political will, a normalized legal ivory trade would save elephant lives.

1Kent, CT 06757, USA. 2Diani Beach, 80401, Kenya.

*To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

1. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Loxodonta Africana (
2. D. Stiles, Environ. Conserv. 34, 309 (2004).
3. E. Bulte, R. Damania, G. van Kooten, J. Wildlife Manage. 71, 613 (2007).
4. T. Milliken, R. W. Burn, L. Sangalakula, The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and the Illicit Trade in Ivory (CoP15, Doc. 44.1, TRAFFIC, Cambridge, MA, 2009);


WALKER AND STILES ARGUE THAT ELEPHANT populations are not declining. The facts say otherwise. Loxodonta africana numbers have plummeted by more than 50% continent-wide in the past 40 years, a reduction now compounded by increases in range loss, confl ict with humans, and resurgence in poaching (1). Illegal killing from 2000 to 2007 was highest in central Africa (63% of carcasses were illegally killed) followed by eastern (57%), western (33%), and southern Africa (19%) (2). Poaching reduced one of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC’s) largest populations of forest elephants by nearly half between 1996 and 2006 (3). Elephant populations in Chad and Central African Republic declined by more than 80% in the past 5 and 20 years, respectively (4, 5). The Selous Game Reserve population in Tanzania has declined by 30% since 2006, amidst escalated poaching (2, 6). Because average tusk size has progressively decreased over the past three decades (7, 8), more elephants must be killed for the same volume of ivory; this has accelerated the trend toward population collapse.

Walker and Stiles next argue that legal trade does not increase illegal trade, and CITES should focus on enforcement instead of targeting legal trade. We disagree. The appeal of the market mechanism for managing wildlife stocks presumes well-functioning institutions with unambiguous ownership of the stocks. Chronic problems such as poaching, corruption, and inadequate regulation and enforcement capacity show that this assumption is false. The problem will be exacerbated if CITES’ promotion of legal trade increases illegal trade by signaling an opening market. The ETIS (9) report to CITES rejected such a relationship for the first one-off ivory sale in 1999 but acknowledged that illegal ivory trade increased substantially in 2009 after the 2008 sale. The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) analysis used adjusted amounts of seizures that markedly differed from unadjusted values, incorporated a smoothing technique that blunted peaks and troughs, and excluded a major increase in poaching in DRC during 2004 (10). This obscured a recurring pattern where each proposal for one-off ivory sales appears to have instigated a rise in poaching. Walker and Stiles believe that a regular, legal trade should be established and enforced. We are not suggesting that legal sales will always lead to irreversible losses, but rather that illegal trade currently is too uncontrolled to justify the risk. When the distinction between legal and illegal ivory is uncertain, increasing the legal supply raises the probability that more ivory will be provided through illegal trade. Illegal dealers will see an expanding market due to increased allowable trade, and will endeavor to maintain their share of that market. Moreover, growing demand for ivory will outstrip any potential sustainable legal supply given increasing purchasing power of Asian consumers and limited maximum growth rates of elephant populations, particularly when poaching is already mining populations of progressively younger individuals. If seizures are assumed to represent ≤10% of ivory shipped (11), the average 19,000 kg of annual ivory seizures over the past decade (9) would require 190,000 kg of “legal” ivory sold annually just to meet levels of demand presently supplied through illegal trade.

We contend that any legal trade at this time is an untenable risk that complicates law enforcement and distracts from the need to reduce demand. Although reducing demand is possible, elephants could be seriously depleted in the interim because (i) verified natural mortality and controlled culls are insufficient to meet current demand; (ii) proceeds from ivory sales cannot be guaranteed to return to local communities as incentive for in situ conservation; and (iii) education campaigns are finding it difficult to suppress the growing desire and purchasing power for luxury goods in end-user countries.

Analogous arguments apply to most other trade species, including sharks, blue fin tuna, polar bears, and corals. CITES should therefore reset its priorities, more explicitly apply the precautionary principle, and insist upon open data access and peer review. Only then will it ensure the long-term viability of species and trade.

1University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.
2Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA.
3ElephantVoices, Sandefjord, 3236, Norway. 4Amboseli
Trust for Elephants, Kenya. 5Tshuapa-Lomami-Lualaba
Project, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
6University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4,
Canada. 7University of Stirling, Stirling K94LA, UK.

*To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

References and Notes
1. J. J. Blanc et al., African Elephant Status Report 2007(IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, 2007).
2. CITES, “Monitoring of illegal hunting in elephant range states” (CoP15, Doc. 44.2, 2009); cop/15/doc/E15-44-02.pdf.
3. R. Beyers, thesis, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC (2008);
4. P. Bouché et al., Afr. J. Ecol., 10.1111/j.1365-2028.2009.01202.x (23 December 2009).
5. D. Potgieter, N. Taloua, B. Djimet, M. Fay, L. Holm, Dry Season Aerial Total Count, Zakouma National Park, Chad 4–8 March 2009 (Wildlife Conservation Society Technical Report, 2009).
6. CITES, “Report of the Panel regarding the proposal of the United Republic of Tanzania” (CoP15 Doc. 68 A6a);
7. E. J. Millner-Gulland, J. R. Beddington, Proc. R. Soc. London Ser. B 252, 29 (1993).
8. CITES, “Report of the Panel regarding the proposal of Zambia” (CoP15 Doc. 68 A6b);
9. T. Milliken, R. W. Burn, L. Sangalakula, The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and the Illicit Trade in Ivory (CoP15, Doc. 44.1, TRAFFIC, Cambridge, MA, 2009);
10. C. A. Apobo, Rapport sur le Braconnage D’Eléphant et sur le Commerce de l’Ivoire dans et a la Périphérie de la Réserve de Faune à Okapis (RFO) Ituri, RDC (ICCN Report, Wildlife Conservation Society, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2004).
11. S. K. Wasser et al., Conserv. Biol. 22, 1065 (2008).

Stiles and I wrote a follow-up letter which appeared online in SCIENCE on July 16, 2010. It is reproduced below:


The response of S. K. Wasser et al. to our Letter (“Consequences of legal ivory trade,” 25 June 2010, p.1633) is replete with factual errors and misrepresentations.

They state we are incorrect when we held that Africa’s elephant population is not decreasing, changing the time frame from “recent” to “40 years” to make their point. The African Elephant Database and IUCN both indicate a continent-wide increase in recent years (1, 2), despite decreases in the areas Wasser et al. cite.

They assert that market mechanisms will not control illegal trade because of poaching, corruption, etc. We disagree. It is the absence of legal trade that has led to increased poaching. If legal ivory were available at prices seen in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)–approved southern Africa auctions (3), black market ivory traders would have no buyers, regardless of corruption and weak law enforcement.

The 2009 Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) report to CITES (4) did not acknowledge “that illegal ivory trade increased substantially in 2009 after the 2008 sale.” What increased was the volume of ivory seized, which we think was due to increased vigilance by the authorities in reaction to the upsurge in publicity associated with the CITES conference and proposed ivory sales by Zambia and Tanzania. Also, as the CITES Secretariat stated: “indications from some recent seizures suggest that some of the ivory may have been poached in the early 2000s. If accurate, this means that it came from elephants that were poached before the most recent legal trade occurred or was even authorized by the Conference of the Parties” (3).

Wasser et al. assert that the ETIS report excluded a major increase in poaching in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2004 that would have revealed a recurring pattern of increased poaching being instigated by one-off legal ivory sales. The DRC report cited referred only to the Okapi Faunal Reserve, which suffers from rampant poaching of all wildlife due to a state of general anarchy. CITES decisions are of little motivational consequence to brigand militias and a lawless army.

They state “that illegal trade currently is too uncontrolled to justify the risk [of allowing legal trade].” Obviously illegal trade is uncontrolled, which is why we argue for a controlled legal trade that will render illegal trade economically unviable.

We do not think that allowing regulated sales of legal ivory will expand the market. It would only expand if demand increased, and demand has been declining almost everywhere since the 1990s (5–9). There appears to be rising demand in China, but no hard data support the contention.

Wasser et al.’s observation that a growing ivory demand in Asia will outstrip the ability of elephant population growth to meet required supply applies to all ivory, not just legal. They assume that only 10% of illegal ivory is seized. The CITES Secretariat stated that it believes the 10% figure often quoted is too low (3). If 90% is getting through, why was no illegal African raw ivory found in recent ivory surveys of Thailand, Vietnam and Japan (10–12)? Also, to derive an ivory demand figure of 190 tons annually from ivory seizures alone is unjustified, and lacks all scientific credibility.

They claim further that “education campaigns are finding it difficult to suppress the growing desire and purchasing power for luxury goods in end-user countries.” This is totally at variance with published peer-reviewed data that ivory demand in the great majority of countries has been falling in response to increased public awareness since 1990 (5–12). Education campaigns do work, and to suggest they do not is harmful to elephant conservation.

Finally, we disagree with Wasser et al. that analogous arguments can be made with most other trade species. In those cases the organism must be killed to trade the product. It is not necessary to illegally kill an elephant to trade its tusks–unless tusks from natural and legally induced mortality are banned from trade.

John Frederick Walker

Kent, CT 06757, USA.

Daniel Stiles

Diani Beach, 80401, Kenya.


1. J. J. Blanc et al., African Elephant Status Report 2007: An Update from the African Elephant Database (No. 33 IUCN/SSC AfESG, Gland, Switzerland, 2007), pp. 22–24.

2. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Loxodonta africana (

3. Monitoring of Illegal Trade in Ivory and other Elephant Specimens, CITES Secretariat, CoP15 Doc. 44.1 (Rev.1);

4. T. Milliken, R. W. Burn, L. Sangalakula, The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and the Illicit Trade in Ivory (CoP15, Doc. 44.1, TRAFFIC, East/Southern Africa, 2009);

5. E. Martin, D. Stiles, The Ivory Markets of Africa (Save the Elephants, London, UK, 2000).

6. E. Martin, D. Stiles, The Ivory Markets of South and South East Asia (Save the Elephants, London, 2002).

7. E. Martin, D. Stiles, The Ivory Markets of East Asia (Save the Elephants, London, 2003).

8. E. Martin, D. Stiles, Ivory Markets of Europe (Care for the Wild International and Save the Elephants, London, 2005).

9. E. Martin, D. Stiles, Ivory Markets in the USA (Care for the Wild International, Kingsfold, UK and Save the Elephants, Nairobi and London, 2008).

10. D. Stiles, An Assessment of the Illegal Ivory Trade in Viet Nam (TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia, 2008).

11. D. Stiles, The Elephant and Ivory Trade in Thailand (TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia, 2009).

12. L. Vigne, E. Martin, Pachyderm 47, 46 (2010).

The Elephant in the Meeting Room

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on March 31, 2010

CITES got it wrong on ivory sales—and elephants are the losers.

The 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, ended March 25 in Doha, Qatar. For two weeks, 175 national delegations confered and clashed over plummeting bluefin tuna stocks, the status of polar bears, endangered Iranian newts and, once again, the elephant-sized shadow of the ivory trade.

Ivory is an endlessly contentious conservation issue that just won’t go away. Recent elephant killings have spiralled sharply upwards, recalling the poaching crisis of the 1980s. That slaughter halved the continent’s population and led to the adoption of a ban on cross-border trade in ivory in 1989.

Contrary to many media reports, the current continent-wide half-million-strong elephant population, although vunerable, is actually increasing—the losses to poachers are offset by burgeoning herds in southern Africa. Still, continued killings and a thriving illicit trade in tusks are stark evidence that the ivory ban hasn’t worked the way its advocates hoped.

The red flag for animal advocates at CITES was the effort by Tanzania and Zambia to win approval to sell their government stockpiles of legal ivory. Such “one-off” ivory sales have happened only twice before, in 1999 and 2008, and raised $20 million for elephant conservation.

Many observers said the two countries did not have a convincing case that their national herds were sufficiently well-managed to be “downlisted” to a less-threatened status which would allow regulated trade in their products. There were also concerns about the documentation of their stockpiles. As a result, their proposals went down to defeat.

But that’s hardly reason to celebrate, as many animal groups have done. In fact, the fixation on preventing legal ivory sales distracts policy makers from coming to grips with the underlying causes of ivory poaching: Human desperation and poverty, corruption, underfunded and ineffective wildlife departments, and unregulated domestic ivory markets operating openly in many of the thirty-seven African elephant range states.

Animal advocates insist legal ivory sales stimulate poaching. It’s a claim that has been repeated so often that it’s widely accepted as fact, when it’s anything but. According to TRAFFIC, the joint IUCN/WWF wildlife trade monitoring network, illicit trade in ivory declined for five years after the 1999 sale of ivory to Japan. After that, illegal trade began to rise, and the trend was well underway before the 2008 ivory sale to China and Japan.

Instead of lobbying at CITES for the imposition of a twenty-year moratorium on ivory exports backed by Kenya and Mali (which failed to gain support), animal advocates should have given serious consideration to how a consistent flow of ivory could actually help elephants.

That’s right—help.

The real problem with one-off sales is that they can’t be counted on to happen, which makes the flow of ivory unpredictable. That keeps the black market and its elephant poaching gangs flourishing. You don’t need a degree in economics to grasp that annual or biennial sales of certified stocks could serve to undercut the illegal trade. In the 2008 sale, legal ivory sold for $75 a pound. Contraband tusks sell for three to five times that amount. If the former were available, who would risk buying the latter—and for far more?

Granted, it would take enormous effort and resources to reach the level of enforcement, certification, and international cooperation necessary to run a highly regulated legal ivory market, but it is the only way forward. Five years of research on the history of ivory has convinced me that it’s a fantasy to think that the age-old desire for this seductive carving material, valued globally since pre-history, will ever disappear.

The key to converting ivory demand into something that helps elephants is utilizing the huge supply of gleaming tusks routinely recovered from the carcasses of elephants that die of natural causes. This guilt-free ivory is kept in vaults by African governments in the hope that someday their “white gold” can be sold. It’s estimated that up to a hundred tons of ivory supplied by the natural mortality of the continent’s elephants could be recovered yearly. That’s enough to supply the domestic ivory market in China and Japan, currently the only CITES-approved buyers, who’ve agreed not to re-export any ivory.

Some insist it’s too soon to try reopening restricted trade in tusks and that in any case the elephants need a “reprieve” until highly threatened populations in some countries recover. But shutting off all legal flow ensures that pent-up demand can only be supplied by the black market. That will mean more, not less poaching.

A strictly limited ivory sales system accessible only to countries with stable elephant populations could help underwrite a viable future for African elephants. It would be a powerful incentive to all range states to crack down on corruption and illegal killings and better protect their national herds.

There was a lot a stake for elephants at this recent CITES meeting, and not many signs of bold thinking. Sadly, Africa will be left with even more elephant poaching, and growing piles of tusks that can’t be sold.

JFW interviewed in The Seattle Times

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on March 12, 2010

Sandi Doughton, science reporter for The Seattle Times, has a story in the paper today, “Sale of elephant-tusk stockpiles may encourage poaching, experts worry.” I was interviewed for the piece, which appears one day in advance of the opening of the CITES meeting in Doha, Qatar, at which Tanzania and Zambia’s proposals to sell their ivory stockpiles will be hotly debated.  Doughton writes, “Walker argues ivory sales in countries where elephant populations are healthy may be the best way to ensure the species’ survival. ‘You do not have to kill elephants to get their ivory,’ he said. ‘Elephants die … and they leave behind these gleaming tusks.'”

The story could not be more timely.  Read the entire article here.

20 Years and Counting: Why the Ivory Debate Won’t Go Away

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on July 17, 2009

Twenty years ago tomorrow, Kenya’s president Daniel arap Moi lit a bonfire of 2,000 elephant tusks in Nairobi National Park as a dramatic gesture to signal his country’s stance against the trade in illegal ivory. Photographs of the huge blaze, with its black smoke curling skyward, appeared around the world and the event came to symbolize global revulsion against ivory poaching—and the killings that halved the African continent’s elephant population in single decade.

A few months later, in October of 1989, member countries at a CITES meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland decided to halt international trade in ivory. The ban came into effect at the beginning of 1990.

But it’s not easy to get rid of ivory—in fact, it took 60 tons of firewood and forty gallons of gasoline to ignite Moi’s twenty-foot stack of tusks. And it’s impossible to eliminate all trade in ivory—because bad as the illegal trade in ivory is for elephants, legitimate, regulated trade in ivory can actually help them.

How? Ivory is something elephants leave behind when they die of natural causes, and tons of it is routinely stockpiled by African nations. Those countries that do a good job of managing their elephant populations (as evidenced by their growing herds) have twice successfully petitioned CITES to allow “one-off” sales of their legitimate ivory stockpiles to raise money for elephant conservation.

The most recent sale, in October of last year, raised some $15 million dollars for South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. As part of the deal, these four nations were prohibited from petitioning CITES to sell additional ivory for nine years.

Much of the media misunderstood this critical detail, and asserted that all trade in ivory had been halted for another nine years. However, African countries that were not part of this “one-off” sale aren’t restricted from submitting proposals to sell their ivory stocks. Sources tell me CITES expects to hear from Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique at its next meeting in March, 2010.

The role of ivory in elephant conservation is a contentious issue, and will likely remain one for years to come. But in a shrinking world, elephants can’t wait forever for solutions. Ways must be found to suppress illegal elephant killings that feed the black market in ivory. At the same time, steps have to be taken to allow limited, highly controlled exports of legitimate ivory from countries that deserve to benefit from their successful efforts at protecting their elephants.

JFW’s Ivory’s Ghosts Harvard Lecture on WGBH

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on May 26, 2009

My well-attended lecture at the Harvard Museum of Natural History this past January was recorded by WGBH in Boston, and is now on their website as part of their Forum Network.

Kilimanjaro_tusksThe Kilimanjaro Tusks, 1898

The presentation includes a series of images of ivory art, the African commerce in tusks, and of course elephants, and touches on as many of the book’s themes as can be squeezed into an hour. A Q&A segment follows. Click here to view the lecture.