To save African elephants from extinction, “range states should put their ivory stockpiles beyond commercial use immediately and simultaneously,” says South African economist Ross Harvey.
Using a theoretical two-player, river-crossing game in a paper called “Preserving the African Elephant for Future Generations,” Harvey—a senior researcher with the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), the country’s premier research institute on international issues—demonstrates which combination of elephant preservation strategies would yield the most effective results.
He calculates that to slow the illegal trade in ivory and reduce demand, all African range countries need to simultaneously dispose of their ivory stockpiles: “If ivory stockpiles are obliterated…the exchange value of elephants will essentially move towards zero.”
Apart from sending a clear message to the consumer that ivory is off-limits, Harvey believes that if each nation’s stockpile disposal is staggered, as has been the case thus far, “syndicates will figure out which countries will be putting their stockpiles beyond use (and when). With that knowledge, “they will then strategize accordingly by attempting to access those stockpiles in advance.”
Such an event occurred in Mozambique in May, when thieves broke into the strong room holding Mozambique’s largest ever haul of confiscated rhino horn and ivory and stole 12 horns valued at around U.S. $1.1 million. The remaining stockpile was publicly destroyed on July 6.
Furthermore, Harvey contends, each time a country individually destroys its stockpile, the price of ivory is driven up, “creating an incentive for riskier behaviour by syndicates and undermining demand-reduction efforts.”
The Game of Crossing the River
This is how Harvey’s theoretical game works:
Player 1 is the Conservationists, representing stakeholders—governments, NGOs, ecologists, and park custodians—committed to sustaining Africa’s elephants.
Player 2 is the Crime Syndicates, representing those committed to stalling the efforts of Player 1 so as to maintain the stream of revenue from the illegal ivory trade.
To make it safely over the river, and take elephants to safety, the Conservationist must cross three bridges. Each crossing has a different payoff. The Crime Syndicate will try to anticipate the Conservationists’ strategic moves and undermine them.
The three bridges are:
Eradicate global demand for ivory products.
Prevent further elephant poaching and trafficking and dispose of all official ivory stockpiles simultaneously.
Ban domestic ivory trades in range states and consumer countries.
Each successful bridge crossing gets the Conservationist one point. Each failure gives the Crime Syndicate one point.
At the end of the game, we can see which conservation strategies are most successful.
When crossing the first bridge, even if Conservationists succeed in reducing demand considerably, they receive only half a point. That’s because if demand reduction is taken in isolation from other strategies, it won’t work effectively.
According to Harvey, demand reduction “is not a simple matter of running a uniform awareness campaign.” The message to the consumer that ivory is off-limits needs to be clear, but as long as range states keep domestic stockpiles in the hope of future one-off sales, that message remains ambiguous at best.
So crossing the first bridge ends in a tie because even with successful demand reduction campaigns, Crime Syndicates can still trade, albeit in a reduced fashion.
When crossing the second bridge, if Conservationists attempt to eradicate poaching, Crime Syndicates respond by increasing their efforts.
The payoff would be shared equally, but at present the syndicates are easily winning because they have better intelligence, have exploited poverty-stricken communities, and have coopted politicians, law enforcement agents, and members of national park conservation teams. And where borders are poorly patrolled, like the one between Mozambique and Tanzania or between Zambia and Zimbabwe, open access gives syndicates free poaching rein.
The Winning Strategy
Even if Conservationists manage to curb poaching, demand for ivory may still rise. Crime Syndicates will then attempt to source ivory from existing stockpiles, as has allegedly happened in Uganda, Gabon, Cameroon, Zambia, and Botswana, as well as Mozambique.
But if Conservationists, anticipating this move, simultaneously dispose of existing official stockpiles, Crime Syndicates are left without any strategic options. Conservationists take the lead 1-0.
Harvey cautions that if ivory stockpiles are put beyond commercial use before demand has been eradicated, criminals will have strong incentive to increase their current poaching efforts. The two strategies, then—simultaneous stockpile disposal and demand reduction—must be done in conjunction.
Crossing bridge three: Harvey says banning domestic trade could be a relatively successful strategy for Conservationists against increased trafficking efforts.
He recognizes that a large part of the current market in China is already illicit. Syndicates would still poach elephants to supply this black market demand. He believes that for law enforcement officials, “it may be less about transaction costs than about political will.”
For instance, if earnings from bribes exceed the expected earnings from a seizure of illegal ivory, formally banning domestic trades may render the Conservationists’ strategy futile.
Stockpile Disposal = Global Demand Reduction = Effective Domestic Trade Ban
The eradication of domestic trades would only work as a result of a successful demand-reduction campaign. In this case, Crime Syndicates would find it difficult to supply to an organically shrinking black market.
So banning domestic trade is likely only to be effective if demand reduction is successful, which in turn is governed by simultaneous stockpile disposals by range states.
Harvey acknowledges that the factors at play in the elephant crisis are far more complex than can be resolved by an economic model with two players, but the game does demonstrate where strategic efforts would gain the highest returns.
“Any strategy where Conservationists win should be their dominant strategy,” he says.
What’s clear is that preventing poaching, banning domestic markets, and mounting campaigns to reduce ivory demand will work only if African governments unite immediately to dispose of their ivory stockpiles.
As long as stockpiles exist, criminal syndicates will find ways to keep the flow of ivory going.