Illegal wildlife trade: Look to the elephants


George Wittemyer, Science (Letters)

Date Published

The expansion of global illegal trafficking and its cooption by sophisticated criminal syndicates have accelerated the overharvesting of species (1). Although we lack understanding of the illegal trade of most species, we have gained insight into elephant ivory trafficking through a variety of monitoring approaches. Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of these strategies can help us both improve them and apply them to research on other species imperiled by trafficking.

Approaches to monitor ivory trafcking are diverse. The Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program (2, 3) provides the most current metrics of illegal harvest. Analysis of illegal ivory seizure scan identify international trafficking routes and key trade ports (4). Genetic assignment of seized ivory identifies source populations and intra-continental trade routes (5). Isotopic sourcing provides parallel insight to genetic data and can age seized contraband (6). Surveys provide fundamental data on population status and trends (7, 8).

In aggregate, these approaches provide comprehensive information on the ivory supply chain and scale of illegal harvest. Within range states, this has raised awareness, directed anti-poaching eforts, and led to diplomatic pressures to stop poaching. On the trafficking side, identification of key destination markets, namely China but also the United States, Vietnam, and Thailand (4, 9), and transit ports have focused demand reduction campaigns and threats of sanction from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Illegal trade in other species could greatly benefit from investment in similar data collection and collation eforts.

Strategies to control the crucial demand- side stimulants of ivory trafcking still need improvement. Focused demand reduction campaigns and domestic trade bans may serve to undermine the foundations driving illegal ivory trafcking. Overtures to
end domestic trade in the primary ivory market of China, as recently implemented in the United States (10), have the potential to reduce avenues for laundering black market ivory, particularly if coupled with strict enforcement of border flows that stymy commerce of ivory from neighboring countries. Such actions should be supported and encouraged by the global community. The adoption of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) resolution calling for the closure of domestic markets for elephant ivory sets a good precedent (11).

George Wittemyer

Save The Elephants, Nairobi, Kenya and Department of Fish Wildlife and Conservation Biology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA. Email:


1. U.N. Ofce on Drugs and Crime, “The globalization
of crime: A transnational organized crime threat assessment” (2010); and-analysis/tocta/TOCTA_Report_2010_low_res.pdf.

2. R. W. Burn, F. M. Underwood, J. Blanc, PLOS ONE 6, e24165 (2011).

3. G.Wittemyeretal.,Proc.Natl.Acad.Sci.U.S.A.111,13117 (2014).

4. F. M. Underwood, R. W. Burn, T. Milliken, PLOS ONE 8, e76539 (2013).

5. S.K.Wasseretal.,Science349,84(2015).

6. K.T.Unoetal.,Proc.Natl.Acad.Sci.U.S.A.110,11736 (2013).

7. M.J.Chaseetal.,PeerJ.4,e2354(2016).

8. F.Maiselsetal.,PLOSONE8,e59469(2013).

9. CITES,“Monitoringtheillegalkillingofelephants”(2013);
10. U.S.FederalRegisterDoc.2016-13173(2016); endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-revision- of-the-section-4d-rule-for-the-african.
11. IUCN Resolution 007 (2016); congress/motion/007.10.1126/science.aai7807