Is the Ivory Ban Actually Saving the Elephants?

Or Getting them Killed Faster?

Of interest to every chess collector who owns ivory sets – or hopes to

By: Tom Gallegos

Before 1989, when the international ban on the importation of ivory was first implemented, elephant poaching, while certainly a serious problem, was mostly carried out by poverty-stricken African villagers attempting to feed their families. Now, decades after the ban, most poaching is carried out by rogue elements of African armies and heavily armed bands of Chinese mafia who have wildlife officials completely outnumbered and outgunned, when they are not colluding on the sly.

When the last elephant has been slaughtered for its tusks, environmentalists will say it was because the ban wasn’t tight enough.

Is this really true?

From a historical and cultural standpoint, ivory is arguably the most important material ever used for chess sets. The most prestigious and beautiful sets were always carved from ivory, at least when they weren’t made of gold and jewels (and these latter sets are obviously a tiny minority). You may quibble if you own a nice Jaques Staunton set in boxwood and ebony, and the appeal of wooden sets is certainly hard to deny. But ivory has long been considered the more aristocratic choice, and chess is the game of kings after all.

So what to do when your government comes along and declares that every single ivory set in your collection is now completely valueless? That’s exactly what’s happening today.

The recent wave of intensified, deadlier poaching has prompted a new firestorm of political activism pushing for a tightening of the ivory ban, essentially doing away with all domestic trade. The new push claims that increased ivory poaching is caused by so-called loopholes in the laws which allow illegal ivories to be smuggled and sold right alongside, or camouflaged as, legal ivory. This in turn, fuels more poaching. Or so the argument goes.

It gets worse. Because it takes some skill to reliably identify ivory and related materials, and there’s no way U.S. Customs and other enforcement officials can be expected to do this, the current rage is for ivory look-alikes to be banned as well. Antiques will suddenly be expected to meet a documentation standard that your grandparents never dreamed of. The rush will be on to dummy up paperwork for genuinely old chess sets, in a futile attempt to mollify clueless bureaucrats whose lust for paper can never be satisfied. This means that your chess sets are no longer safe just because they’re old. They are no longer safe just because they’re mammoth ivory. They’re no longer safe just because they’re made of bone, or even white plastic (think celluloid, a plastic that was originally designed to imitate ivory).

None of this has gone through the legislative process in Congress, mind you. It is all being done via Executive Order and new regulations issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service. To be fair, as of this writing nothing is set in stone. Yet the vehemence of the environmentalists pushing a tractable administration, combined with the all-encompassing nature of the proposed new rules, is creating a climate of fear and uncertainty among dealers, curators and collectors. Any time in history we have seen sweeping proscriptions enacted against the activities and possessions of large groups of formerly law-abiding citizens, such as the anti-Jewish laws of 1930’s Germany, or the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960’s, the harm to society has always outweighed any possible good.

While the Fish and Wildlife Service states that the laws are not changing for mammoth, bone, and other ivory substitutes and look-alikes, these things will certainly be under a cloud of suspicion, since under-trained Customs inspectors have the power to detain anything they are not sure about. And you, guilty until proven innocent, will get to defend yourself in court at great expense to retrieve possession of your bone barleycorn or vegetable ivory set. It should be relatively easy to prove cases of “this is not elephant ivory – it’s a different material.” But get ready to lose the battle for your ivory Lund or Calvert set if you don’t have a lot of recently cobbled-together documentation to wave in their faces.

I ask again: Will this witch hunt in the USA do anything to help defend elephants in Africa against heavily armed, paramilitary poachers who are clandestinely feeding raw, bloody tusks to carving workshops in China?

Though I do collect chess sets, including some ivory sets, my only interest in writing this article is this: What is the fastest, easiest, best way to save the elephants? That should be the focus of any article on this topic. Collectors and dealers, on the rare occasion their voices are heard at all in this debate, have trumpeted the cultural importance of ivory as an artistic medium, and it’s true. I myself could go on and on about this. But in a political climate where even Prince William is fantasizing about destroying all the ivory treasures in the royal palaces, it is clear that this argument is being rejected as self-serving.

It’s the demand that’s the problem, we keep hearing. We should all just squeeze our eyes shut and pretend that ivory no longer exists. No one should want it. Let’s pass some laws to control what people want. Yeah, that’ll work.

No collector wants elephants to die off as a species. We are all environmentalists when it comes to elephants, and it’s high time we were reminded that we are all on the same side.

Well, maybe not exactly the same side. When we hear reports of six tons of ivory being crushed out of existence in Denver, not only do we weep for the elephant, but we also know to brace ourselves for higher prices overseas, and an ever-expanding black market in response. The proponents of the crush insist we must do things like this to “send a message” to poachers and Chinese consumers. They say this with a straight face, oblivious to the fact that they are dealing in pure fantasy.

“Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them,” isn’t that the old saw? Back during Prohibition, inspired by Carrie Nation actually chopping up barrooms with an axe, a righteous nation outlawed spirituous liquors because indulging in them was so obviously “wrong.” Many thousands of barrels were burst, whiskey flowed freely in the gutters, and Congressmen loved to crow that in a few more years, the rest of the world would have no choice but to follow suit and go dry.

I like to remember them every time I order another drink in a public house.

Environmentalists will be quick to counter that living elephants are an entirely different matter; that beautiful, intelligent wild creatures cannot be compared to a glass of inert whiskey. And I agree. They’re absolutely right.

So why are these same environmentalists acting in a manner that is getting the elephants killed off in such a big hurry?

That’s right. I said it. J’accuse!


Let’s start with something obvious. So-called “experts” have long debated whether poaching or habitat loss due to human population growth is primarily responsible for the decline of elephant numbers. They seem unable to wrap their heads around a simple fact: It’s a combination of both. And logically, the solution, if there is one, must address both.

The southern African nations, where governments are more stable and elephant herds tend to be better managed, once tried to argue that wild animals must have some sort of economic value if they are to survive on a planet they must share with humans, who breed like rabbits, who get to squat anywhere they like and kill anything that gets in their way. While some limited international trade in body parts of endangered species is allowed, the “economic value” model has been largely rejected in favor of a model which views these body parts as de facto evidence of murder. In a just world, such parts should have zero economic value, and should not be considered desirable by people of good conscience.

While I am against animal cruelty in general, I know that in the special case of elephant ivory, it does not have to be this way.

For the time being though, it is. Ivory is a pariah, even though many people still collect and covet it, and it shows up in piano keys and guitar bridges, and lots of other places you would never expect. I will not go into all that has been written about how hard this new ban will make life for hundreds of thousands of law-abiding citizens from all walks of life. Suffice it to say that to disentangle humans from ivory is not nearly so easy as one might imagine.

And so we are left with this uncomfortable compromise, and the resultant badly distorted marketplace we have today. Commercial, yet banned. Banned, yet sometimes bought and sold. Every so often in recent decades, CITES has allowed one-off sales of old stockpiles, when they are not urging governments to burn or crush old stockpiles.

Of course, one-off sales only tend to distort the market further. These new distortions are then quickly seized upon as proof that a legal trade can never work. For example, it is well known that around seventy percent of all poached ivory is currently ending up in China. Yet who has been known to come out on top as a CITES “approved buyer,” scooping up vast quantities of the one-off tusks? You guessed it: China. This strongly suggests that CITES is just as vulnerable as any other political organization to undue influence.

Take the Mexican drug cartels as a comparable. Drugs are a bit like ivory in one important way. The cartels have the Mexican police and other authorities completely outgunned, outmanned, and outclassed, not to mention corrupted and infiltrated. They move drugs freely and decapitate opponents, or just innocent people who get in the way, at will.

Now comes the part most people simply refuse to hear. The quickest and easiest way to put the drug cartels out of business would be to legalize drugs. Tax and regulate them. Yes, this would create a raft of other social problems, but these could all be dealt with. You could make heroin addicts come to a clinic to get their fix, for example, tripping only in sterile conditions, under proper supervision, with counseling and other assistance available for those who professed a desire to kick the habit. But with heroin available at its true, negligible production cost, virtually all drug crime associated with the need to pay astronomical prices for a hit would disappear. By treating addiction as a purely medical, rather than a moral issue, we could put a lot of grief behind us.

In my home state of Colorado, voters have legalized the sale of marijuana for medical, then just recently for recreational, purposes. Many of you will have contrary opinions about this. Say what you will about legalization, but the one thing that cannot be disputed is that your friendly neighborhood pot dealer is virtually a thing of the past. The illegal side of the business has all but disappeared.

Back to the elephants. The reason the current approach to combating poaching is backfiring so badly is that it is impossible – and usually perverse – to attempt to legislate desire. Do you imagine for one minute that if we passed a law against sex, the human species would placidly accept its own extinction? If we passed a law against meat consumption to avoid killing cows and pigs, would everyone accept forced vegetarianism?

Of course not. Banning what people want merely results in the creation of black markets. Worse, it often lends the contraband an enhanced cachet. What we see happening with ivory demand in Asia is arguably another form of the irresistible allure that developed around bootleg liquor in the 1920’s. Forbidden fruit is always the most desirable. The more comprehensive and strict a ban is, the more the black markets thrive. There is an alternative, however. If you want people to respect the laws, then the laws must be worthy of respect.


What should be our approach? We can almost hear the echo of President Lincoln as we reflect: If we could save the elephants without legalizing any ivory we should do it. If we could save the elephants by legalizing all ivory, we should do it. And if we could save the elephants by legalizing some and banning some we should also do that.

What has never been tried – what has indeed barely yet been conceived of – is the idea of using ivory, and the demand for it, in an affirmative way, as a weapon to fight for the long-term survival of the elephant. In other words, the trade should be fully legalized, regulated and managed in such a way as to provide the maximum benefit to the species.

What would this look like?

Happy Fact Number One: When you save elephants from slaughter, you end up with MORE ivory, not less. This seems inconceivable to some, but the taking of ivory does not have to be a lethal use of the elephant. Historically it has been a lethal use – lethal and bloody – but this can easily change. Many have pointed out that ivory does not conveniently disappear just because we ban it. Elephants still grow it. The tusks just get bigger and bigger throughout the animal’s lifetime. After a long life, and a natural death, these durable tusks do not decompose quickly in the wild. They get picked up by humans, and always will, no matter how tight we might make the ban. Vast amounts of what is referred to as “natural-death ivory” have been building up in the warehouses of African governments ever since the 1989 ban first came into effect. Bigger tusks, and more of them, are the inevitable result of saving the elephants.

Happy Fact Number Two: When you give people ownership rights over things that have value, they tend to take care of them. The African range states should be recognized as having full ownership rights over the elephant herds that live within their borders. Not just for ecotourism (although this should remain an important source of revenue) but also for the right to sell raw ivory tusks and even byproducts such as bush meat, hides and hairs of the animals. This is the part that will give most run-of-the-mill environmentalists a sinking feeling, but hear me out: I am not suggesting completely unrestricted ownership rights. These ownership rights would be carefully structured with the long-term survival of the elephant as their paramount goal. Under this concept, CITES would still be there to review and certify which range states are doing an effective job of managing their herds and protecting them from poachers.

This approach would return the war for the elephant to it’s most effective and relevant theater – on the ground in Africa. Enforcement officials would still combat poaching, with a few key differences. All efforts would go to assist the range states in protecting their herds for both their biodiversity value and their economic value. CITES would issue certifications for the sale of raw ivory only to states that maintain large and thriving herds. It would withhold certification from rogue and ineffective states, either those with unstable governments or states that were otherwise unable or unwilling to protect their herds from poaching. Exports of raw ivory from the range states would be given certification only to the extent that the tusks could be shown to be 1) natural-death ivory, 2) legally culled, and/or 3) from a known government stockpile. In fact, these stockpiles would be the only place to legally buy raw tusks. Suddenly, the largest tusks would be in vogue. Smaller, bloodier tusks would be more difficult to document unless from an official cull due to disease or a troublesome elephant-human interaction (a vexed question in itself).

Suddenly, the range states would guard their elephant herds as jealously as the OPEC nations guard their oil. Corruption (at least the kind that results in elephant slaughter) would disappear, as the government and the military in these places cooperated to maximize the value of their loxodontine assets. The vast government stockpiles that have so long lain dormant would now come into play, providing a powerful buffer between elephants and poachers’ bullets. In fact, if the range states were wise, they would realize they now constituted an oligopoly, and quickly form an alliance very much like OPEC so that stockpiles, instead of being auctioned off all at once, would be doled out slowly and selectively at high prices to those who could afford to pay. The stockpiles would not be frittered away, but would be maintained and replenished, primarily with natural-death ivory, but also tusks from legal culls, which should be easy to document. The effectiveness of stockpile management would itself be a subject under CITES purview.

Don’t give certifications to governments who merely claim their ivory revenues are going to conservation (and instead put them in a general fund or a slush fund, as has happened in the past), but only to countries that prove themselves to be as good as their word. For this to work, certain audit powers would need to be granted to CITES, but if they are the ones issuing the certificates, the range states will have to play by their rules.

Whenever customs officials seize large shipments of poached or undocumented raw tusks, those tusks should be returned to their country of origin to be added to that government’s legal stockpiles. Biologists now have the technology, through DNA analysis, to determine precisely which herds raw tusks have come from. What they have lacked up until now is an effective paradigm under which to actually use this methodology in defense of elephants. Seized tusks that originate from countries with war-torn, unstable, or otherwise non-certifiable governments could be placed in a special CITES or pan-African stockpile that would specifically fund further conservation efforts.

This is an important point, and should not be glossed over: A poached tusk would be rendered legal again, and subject to legal sale, after being repatriated to the legal stockpile of its certified, approved range state. As long as the final revenue from that tusk goes toward legitimate conservation efforts and helps support a well-managed herd, this would be the best way to rob from the poachers and ensure that slaughtered elephants have not died in vain.

(On a side note, as many before me have suggested, if some of the range states just happened to have laws allowing poachers to be shot on sight, this could only help…)

Let’s stay with those legal stockpiles for a moment. All tusks in the stockpiles could and should be subject to DNA analysis. The raw tusks can then be marked inside the pulp cavity with identifying CITES-approved bar codes, and accompanied by proper documentation. These markings only need to last until the tusks are shipped to approved carving factories in China (or wherever they are in demand). The marks would then be carved away, and the documentation deadfiled.

That’s it. No need to certify or mark each individual carving. No need to harass or detain law-abiding citizens whose grandfather may have brought home an ivory chess set from Japan after WWII. No need for customs officials to learn to distinguish new from antique, or ivory from bone. No need to crush thousands of beautiful artworks and royal treasures out of existence. No need to legislate desire.

Bottom line: The herds were protected throughout the process of those raw tusks coming to market. If demand is insatiable, as many environmentalists fear, the price will go up. If the stockpiles are enough to flood the market, the price will go down. Market forces can be allowed to operate freely, but the herds will be protected, either way.

On top of this, suddenly there would be serious economic incentives for the range states to protect and even increase the land available for elephant habitat. Yes folks, this solution actually fights against both of the causes of elephant extinction, poaching and habitat loss. Suddenly we would see game parks expanded, or at the very least, the pressures of human encroachment lessened. When making decisions about land-use, do you think the OPEC nations allow tract housing to be built atop their precious oil fields?

The poachers would be left out in the cold in this scenario. Unable to obtain CITES certifications, the unstable governments, rogue militias and Chinese mafia groups who are currently using chainsaws to hack off elephants’ faces would be unable to compete with legal, certified tusks reaching the carving workshops of China. Because their shipments of poached tusks would still be subject to seizure and forfeiture to a legitimate government stockpile, criminals would have little incentive to persist in the illegal end of the trade. “Oh well,” you can almost hear them saying, “at least we still have opium smuggling to fall back on. No legal trade to compete with there.”

A fully legal trade, combined with continued seizures and forfeitures of poached tusks, would also solve the old problem of the legal trade being used as camouflage or cover for the illegal trade. In all previous attempts by CITES to set up a control system, or allow some international movement of ivory, the result has been criminals gaming, or even in one writer’s phrase, “running rings around the system.”

Fine. Let’s just arrange things so that the easiest and most profitable way to game the system is to grow the herds and build up the stockpiles. Let us see how quickly dangerous bootleggers can be turned into law-abiding, tax-paying liquor store owners when Prohibition is ended.

Let’s turn to the problem of burgeoning demand for ivory in China for a moment. Public information campaigns throughout Asia are indeed sorely needed. But they mustn’t treat ivory as a pariah, or non-entity, since we already know this only backfires. Instead they should encourage Chinese consumers to demand guarantees that the ivory was responsibly sourced. Just as no one expects people to stop buying diamonds, but rather it has become the vogue to ask questions to help make sure that diamonds are conflict-free, the same can be done with ivory.

Under this new paradigm, natural-death ivory would be the primary source of tusks for replenishing the legal stockpiles of the range states. Natural-death ivory should be about as controversial as people making chandeliers out of naturally-shed deer antlers. And yet, this new paradigm will be difficult to bring about, not because of any inherent difficulty in the task of saving elephants, but because of the inability of environmentalists to shake off their old notion that “ivory equals slaughter,” and their tendency to ignore or downplay any evidence that this equation could ever change. Psychologists call this type inflexible thinking “confirmation bias.”

Typical environmentalists, those stuck in this old way of thinking, will shriek that we cannot give in to criminal elements. I would counter that it is they who have been playing directly into the hands of the criminals for many years now.

Doug Bandow* of the Cato Institute has recently pointed out that many environmentalists, especially those in the comfortable, pampered USA, seem much more interested in maintaining their own air of moral rectitude than in actually saving any elephants. He presents them with the hard choice they now face, of deciding whether they prefer elephants to be sacred and dead, or commercial and alive.

I would go even further by asking, what if “commercial” did not have to mean bloody?

The other reason this solution is a long way from ever being tried is that it would require international agreement, modifications to the CITES treaty, and the actions of many different legislatures. None of them will ever read anything written by a mere chess collector. So in the meantime, since we’re stuck with the sad old body-parts “trafficking” model, expect to hear reports of ever-increasing poaching, drastically dwindling herds, and frantic pleas for a tighter and tighter ban. In other words, brace yourselves for the next Great American Witch Hunt.

But just imagine the alternative. Ivory could protect the elephants, if it were used wisely. Ivory could save the elephants, if we gave it a chance.

To the bloody-minded poachers we could finally say, check and mate.

* My thanks to Mr. Bandow. His several recent articles on this problem have been an inspiration.

About Tom Gallegos:
Tom Gallegos is a member of Chess Collectors International. The above article was published as a White Paper on April 7, 2014.