The US Government Is Destroying A Bunch of Ivory and Making a Big Mistake

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 15 2013 8:36 AM

Destroying Illegally Poached Ivory Seems Like A Big Mistake

188061572
Sri Lankan elephants are tethered outside the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo on November 15, 2013.

Photo by Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is crushing a whole bunch of ivory that it seized from people involved in the illegal poaching and smuggling of tusks from endangered animals. They say they're doing this "to send a clear message that the United States will not tolerate ivory trafficking and the toll it is taking on elephant populations, particularly in Africa."

That's a great message to send, but I think it's difficult not to worry that the policy will achieve the complete opposite result. By destroying the ivory, you create even more ivory scarcity and increase the incentives for future poaching. It seems like the more reasonable approach would be to arrest and punish human beings who are committing crimes, and then sell the seized ivory and use the proceeds to finance more anti-poaching efforts. The FWS considers this in their fact sheet on the crushing, and replies that "selling the ivory stockpile and allowing it to enter the marketplace could contribute to increased elephant poaching and stimulate even more consumer demand for ivory."

Advertisement

They then further reason that since seized ivory is never sold, destroying the ivory "has no impact on the overall supply and does not create any incentive for poaching."

But via Tyler Cowen, a 2000 paper by Michael Kremer and Charles Morcom offers a hybrid solution. They say don't sell the ivory and don't destroy it either. Instead stockpile the ivory and say it'll be dumped on the market if the elephant population falls below some critical threshold value.

Either way, it's hard to see what this crushing accomplishes. It narrows the Fish and Wildlife Service's future options, at the margins increases the incentive for future smuggling, and all simply to "send a message" about government disapproval of something that's already illegal.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.