Illegal ivory trade driven by unregulated domestic markets

Updated on 12 January 2021

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Illegal ivory trade driven by unregulated domestic markets

Major sources and markets identified by new monitoring system

Geneva, 4 October 2002 - Despite a virtually continuous ban on international trade in ivory since 1989, a series of analytical reports from the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) has revealed that a significant illegal trade in ivory continues.

This illegal trade is driven mainly by large, unregulated domestic markets in a number of Asian and African countries. The reports also reveal that the increasing economic power of consumers in China is making that country the major force in driving ivory demand worldwide.

The four most important countries implicated as being frequent sources or destinations for large volumes of illegal ivory - largely as a result of poor law enforcement - are China, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Thailand. Other key players are Cameroon, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Uganda.

Of secondary importance are Angola, Burundi, Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, India, Republic of Korea, Philippines, and Sudan. Most of these countries either have substantial domestic ivory markets that remain largely unregulated or they play important roles as illicit exporters of ivory.

Established in 1997 by the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), ETIS is a comprehensive international monitoring system for tracking illegal trade in elephant products.

Developed and managed by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, in association with the CITES Secretariat, the system uses global records of ivory and other elephant product seizures as a basis for understanding illegal trade dynamics, including trends. ETIS now contains over 7,800 records of elephant product seizures that have taken place throughout the world since 1989, implicating 150 countries in the illicit trade in ivory.

While ETIS has been operational for several years, the first analytical results from the monitoring system will be presented at the twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES taking place from 3 - 15 November in Santiago, Chile. The reports, based upon a comprehensive statistical analysis of the ETIS data, show trends and changes in trends of ivory seizures over time, identify those countries that play leading roles in the illicit ivory trade, and assess the nature of their involvement.

"The statistical analysis indicates that illegal trade in ivory is directly correlated to the presence of large-scale, unregulated domestic ivory markets," said Tom Milliken, Director of TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa and one of the authors of the reports.

"Located in both Africa and Asia, these markets have become increasingly more active since 1996 and account for the greatest volume of ivory being seized throughout the world. If we want to stop elephant poaching, we must address these markets," he said.

In terms of global ivory trade trends, the ETIS reports indicate that ivory seizure volumes progressively declined from 1989 to 1994, remained stable at 1994 levels through to 1998, but have been on the increase ever since.

"Our analysis shows that, since 1998, demand for ivory in China has dramatically increased. In fact, it is the single most important factor influencing the increasing trend," said Milliken.

Between 1989 and 1997, all elephant populations were listed in Appendix I of CITES, which imposed a global ban on international commercial trade in elephant products. In September 1997, the large and increasing elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were transferred to Appendix II, allowing a one-off ivory sale to Japan two years later. In 2000, the South African elephant population was also transferred to Appendix II, but there was no provision for trade in ivory. ETIS was established to monitor whether or not the limited resumption in ivory trade would have negative impacts on elephant populations.

"We're concerned that illegal trade in ivory is increasing," said Willem Wijnstekers, Secretary General of CITES. "At the same time, it is some consolation to note that this increase does not appear to be related to decisions taken under CITES, but rather potent and new economic forces in countries that traditionally value elephant ivory."

Recent TRAFFIC studies in China, Japan, Myanmar and Vietnam show that elephant products are openly traded. These markets are generally poorly regulated and, to a large extent, rely upon illegal sources of ivory for the production of curios. In China, the TRAFFIC study also found that the government may be starting to take encouragingly strong actions to stamp out the illicit ivory trade, although regulation of domestic markets remained weak.

Wijnstekers urged governments to address the problem of unregulated domestic ivory markets. "By giving us a deeper understanding of how the illegal ivory trade works, the ETIS monitoring system has also flagged the most important action we can take to protect the African elephant - strict regulation and enforcement of the domestic ivory trade by all countries," he said.

Since its inception, ETIS has received funding from the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, WWF and the CITES Secretariat.

Copies of the report is available on the World Wide Web at

Copies of the TRAFFIC reports on trade in elephants and elephant products in Viet Nam, China, Taiwan, Myanmar and Japan are available from TRAFFIC's Online Report Series at

For further information, please contact:

Tom Milliken, Director of TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa, Friday tel. +27 11 486 1102, Monday 7 October onwards +263 4 252533.

Maija Sirola, Communications Coordinator at TRAFFIC International, Cambridge tel. +44 (0)1223 277427, email: [email protected].

Jim Armstrong, Deputy Secretary General, CITES Secretariat, Geneva, Switzerland tel. +41 22 9178127, email: [email protected].

Juan Carlos Vasquez, CITES Media Officer, CITES Secretariat, Geneva, Switzerland tel. +41 22 9178156, email: [email protected]

Michael Williams, Press Officer, United Nations Environment Programme, Geneva, Switzerland tel. +41 79 4091528, email: [email protected].


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