Worrying signs for elephant conservation as data shows 2020 rise in black-market ivory prices.

There are several key pieces of data about the changing dynamics of illegal ivory trade. First among these are measures of illegal elephant killings, which can shed light on where the main supply sources of illegal ivory are, and how much ivory is entering illegal trade through poaching channels. In 2020, elephant poaching rates hit their lowest level since 2003 (which is when systematic records began via the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants [MIKE] programme).1 Estimates of the numbers of elephants killed annually have fallen for East and southern Africa relative to populations in central Africa. This reflects how the epicentre of ivory trafficking activity has shifted to West and central Africa, following successes in countering ivory trafficking in East and southern African countries.

Analysis of the number and weight of ivory seizures can shed light on main supply sources and the principal consumer demand hotspots. Seizures in transit countries can also offer valuable information on the transport routes through which illegal ivory moves. Analysis by monitoring organization C4ADS suggests that global seizures of ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales fell sharply in 2020. Conservation organizations have warned that this may foreshadow an impending ‘illicit-trade boom’, whereby stockpiled wildlife products that could not be moved under COVID-19 restrictions are released and hit the market and the economic impacts of the pandemic on wildlife source countries manifest in increased poaching.2

The use of ivory price data can also provide another window into the dynamics of illicit trade. New GI-TOC analysis has looked at trends in black-market ivory prices since the beginning of the century to investigate what price trends may portend for illicit ivory trade in East and southern Africa.3

It appears that thefts from ivory stockpiles are, since around 2016, increasingly becoming a major source of raw ivory in illicit markets.

It appears that thefts from ivory stockpiles are, since around 2016, increasingly becoming a major source of raw ivory in illicit markets.

Photo: Daniel Stiles

Estimated annual numbers of illegally killed elephants in central, eastern and southern Africa (median figures), 2010–2018.

Figure 4 Estimated annual numbers of illegally killed elephants in central, eastern and southern Africa (median figures), 2010–2018.

Number of ivory seizure cases and estimated weight of ivory by year, 1989–2019.

Figure 5 Number of ivory seizure cases and estimated weight of ivory by year, 1989–2019.

NOTE: Data plotted is not bias-adjusted and is likely under-represented due to low reporting for 2018 and 2019. Hence, figures do not provide inference of trends.
SOURCE: Tom Milliken et al., The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and the illicit trade in ivory, presented at the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, CoP18 Doc. 69.3 (Rev. 1), Annex 1, 2018. From CITES, Elephant Trade Information System, 2020, https://cites.org/esp/prog/etis

Counting the cost

Price data, when compared over time, provides an insight into levels of demand for (and supply of) illegal wildlife products and can help predict future trends in poaching and illegal trade. This is a different type of insight into the illegal trade than other measures such as poaching incidents and seizures. Poaching incidents are not the only means by which ivory may enter illegal trade (for example, thefts from legal ivory stockpiles can feed the illicit market) and seizures only capture a small proportion of the illicit ivory on the market, and so may not reflect actual illegal trade trends. Price data, by contrast, reflects the assessment of supply and demand by actors within the illicit trade itself.

This is especially true for prices at early stages of the illegal wildlife market, such as prices charged by poachers and exporters in source countries. Data for a ‘raw’ product such as ivory is also more likely to reflect direct demand and supply factors than prices for processed wildlife products such as worked ivory. For worked products, other variables may influence price, including quality, unknown quantity (as in medicinal products), location sold (street or online price is much lower for the identical product than in a luxury boutique or auction house) and purchasing power of the buyer.

However, collecting price data for illicit products such as ivory is difficult to do accurately because of the covert nature of the market and the supply chains that feed it. There is little opportunity for researchers to check or cross-reference price estimates from different sources in the illicit market, and the factors causing prices to vary across time and geographies may not be visible to the outside observer. Another issue in tracking ivory prices over time is that often prices are reported in research in US dollars, meaning that fluctuating exchange rates may distort actual reported prices. As GI-TOC research into drug pricing has also found, difficulties in measuring illicit commodity prices become an issue when these estimates are used in court proceedings and sentencing, which is the case in some countries in East and southern Africa, including Tanzania.4

Raw ivory price trends at the poacher and import country wholesale points in the trade chain, using Kenya, Vietnam and China as examples, 1999–2020.

Figure 6 Raw ivory price trends at the poacher and import country wholesale points in the trade chain, using Kenya, Vietnam and China as examples, 1999–2020.

The ivory price rollercoaster

Our analysis brought together price data reported from sources active in the illicit ivory trade – such as poachers and ivory traders – and price data recorded in other analyses, academic papers and reports, from 2000 to present. The key finding was that after precipitous declines in raw ivory prices from late 2014, there was a surprising resurgence in wholesale ivory prices in 2020. This included a rise in the ivory wholesale price in China, from approximately US$750/kilogram in early 2017 to almost double that in late 2020.5 A less drastic price rise was also observed in Vietnam, with the price of ivory hitting US$689/kilogram in 2020 compared to an average of US$629/kilogram in 2018.6 Prices reported by poachers in Kenya also showed a slight increase on prices from 2018.7

These recent price rises should be watched closely and confirmed by further investigations. Why this is occurring is not immediately clear, although it may be because imports to destination and transit countries were restricted in 2020 because of the decrease in air travel during COVID-19 lockdown periods, which reduced supply. The price rises in Asia could be a result of the resale of old stockpiled ivory, which would sell at a higher price than newly acquired ivory because the tusks were purchased when prices were higher. Alternatively, the Asian wholesale price increases in 2020 may be the consequence of ivory-trafficking networks moving to West and central Africa, where research suggests poacher and middleman supply prices are much higher than in East and southern Africa.8

However, the 2020 price rises should be seen in context of the 2014 global peak. In China, wholesale black market ivory prices rose rapidly between 2000 and 2014 from around US$370/kilogram to an average of US$2 572/kilogram in 2014. (Prices ranged from US$1 710/kilogram to US$3 740/kilogram in 2014, depending on weight and quality).9

But prices then crashed, probably beginning in late 2014, to reach an average of US$960/kilogram in 2015.10 In 2018, after China had closed the legal ivory market, prices hovered in the US$1 000 per kilogram range, according to a Chinese source, but in 2019 TRAFFIC China found that raw ivory importer selling prices were down to an average of about US$570 per kilogram.11

Similar trends were seen in poacher prices in Kenya. Reported prices from different parts of Kenya averaged about US$15/kilogram in 1999. This price had doubled to US$33/kilogram in 2008 and skyrocketed to US$190/kilogram in 2014.12 By 2016 the average poacher price in Kenya had dropped to US$88/kilogram, falling further to about US$52/kilogram in 2018 (with a wide range of US$30–79/kilogram, indicating uncertainty in the market).

Recent studies have suggested that, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, ivory prices rose as the commodity became sought after as an investment, much like other high-value commodities such as gold.13 As record gold prices in 2020 have again shown, these kinds of commodities rise in price amid financial uncertainty and crisis. In 2014, as ivory became less of an attractive investment option, prices once again began to fall. The same thing could happen with ivory prices during the post-COVID economic recovery, although it is too soon to ascertain any such trajectory.

What does the post-COVID world hold for elephants in East and southern Africa?

Countering ivory trafficking in East and southern Africa can be seen as a success story, as there has been a large-scale shift in illicit ivory sources from the region towards West and central Africa. Major ivory trafficking organizations have also been dismantled.14 Domestic legal ivory markets in destination countries have been closed and civil society has had some success in changing consumer attitudes towards consuming ivory products.

However, the latest trends in ivory prices mean that there is a risk these successful trends may change. The recent rises in ivory wholesale price, if sustained, may spur increased levels of poaching in future. With large potential profits to be made, criminal networks that have been dismantled by law enforcement may become active again if prosecutions are unsuccessful or associates are not prosecuted, and new ones may emerge. Despite progress, the demand for illicit ivory is still there, and so the threat to elephants in East and southern Africa – which hosts the largest populations of elephants in absolute numbers – remains.

This article draws on research from the GI-TOC brief ‘African elephant ivory’, by Daniel Stiles, the first in a series that examines market dynamics and prices of selected live and derivative products in illegal wildlife trade. Available at: https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/african-elephant-ivory/.


  1. The MIKE programme and the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) were created under CITES in 1997. The MIKE programme consists of 69 monitoring sites in 32 countries in Africa, most of them protected areas containing in total about 50% of the entire African elephant population. From data provided by the field sites, the analysis team based at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi determines the PIKE, which is calculated as the number of illegally killed elephants found by field surveys, divided by the total number of elephant carcasses seen, aggregated by year for each site. The higher the PIKE score, the higher the degree of poaching. See CITES Secretariat, Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) report: PIKE trend analysis – Methodology and results, September 2020, https://cites.org/sites/default/files/MIKE/E_CITES_Secretariat_MIKE_report_Final_CITESwebsite_Nov2020.pdf 

  2. Dina Maron, Wildlife seizures are down—and an illicit trade boom may be coming, National Geographic, 15 March 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/wildlife-seizures-dropped-in-2020-but-an-illicit-trade-boom-may-be-coming/

  3. Dan Stiles, Black Market Brief: African Elephant Ivory, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, forthcoming August 2021. 

  4. Observatory of Illicit Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa, Risk Bulletin 16, February–March 2021, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/GITOC-Eastern-and-Southern-Africa-Risk-Bulletin-16.pdf

  5. Yuankun Zhao et al., revisiting China’s ivory markets in 2017, TRAFFIC briefing, August 2017; Yu Xiao, China’s ivory market after the ivory trade ban in 2018, TRAFFIC briefing, September 2018; correspondence with Wei Ji, September 2020; correspondence with Haibin Wang, December 2020 

  6. Wildlife Justice Commission, Rapid Assessment of the Illegal Ivory Trade in 2020, August 2020, https://wildlifejustice.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/WildlifeJusticeCommission_Rapid-Assessment-Of-The-Illegal-Ivory-Trade-in-2020_August2020_Spreads.pdf

  7. Only two poacher prices in Kenya could be obtained in September 2020, as demand for ivory was extremely low, both of KES 6 000/kilogram, which at the time of collection was about US$56/kilogram. These prices are for tusks that usually weigh less than 10 kilograms. 

  8. Sone Nkoke et al., Ivory markets in central Africa – Market surveys in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Gabon: 2007, 2009, 2014/2015, TRAFFIC, September 2017. 

  9. Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin, China faces a conservation challenge: The expanding elephant and mammoth ivory trade in Beijing and Shanghai, Save the Elephants, and the Aspinall Foundation, 2014; Yufang Gao and Susan Clark, Elephant ivory trade in China: trends and drivers, Biological Conservation, 180, 23–30, 2014. 

  10. Daniel Stiles, Rowan Martin and Brendan Moyle, Analysis of ivory demand drivers, unpublished report carried out on behalf of the Wildlife Conservation Society, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/33903804/Analysis_of_Ivory_Demand_Drivers

  11. Prices are complicated by the fact that they are much higher in the north (Beijing) than in the south (Guangdong Province). 

  12. Daniel Stiles, EB Martin and Lucy Vigne, Exaggerated ivory prices can be harmful to elephants, Swara, 34, 4, 2011, 16–20, and author interviews with NGO and Kenya Wildlife Service informants in Kenya in 2018 and 2020. There were wide ranges in prices, with US$205/kilogram the highest seen in Kenya paid to poachers in 2014. 

  13. Yufang Gao and Susan Clark, Elephant ivory trade in China: trends and drivers, Biological Conservation, 180, 23–30, 2014; Daniel Stiles, Rowan Martin and Brendon Moyle, Analysis of ivory demand drivers, unpublished report carried out on behalf of the Wildlife Conservation Society, 2015, https://www.academia.edu/33903804/Analysis_of_Ivory_Demand_Drivers

  14. For example, major traffickers Feisal Mohammed Ali, Yang ‘Ivory Queen’ Fenglan, Boniface ‘Shetani’ Malyango, Mateso ‘Chupi’ Kasian, several members of the Shuidong network, the Sheikhs gang and the principal leaders of the Kromah network were all arrested between 2014 and 2020.