Can We Sustainably Harvest Ivory?

David Lusseau, Phyllis C. Lee

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11 Citations (Scopus)
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Despite the 1989 ivory trade ban, elephants continue to be killed to harvest their tusks for ivory. Since 2008, this poaching has increased to unprecedented levels driven by consumer demand for ivory products. CITES is now considering to develop a legal ivory trade [1,2]. The proposal relies on three assumptions: i) harvest regulation will cease all illegal activities; ii) defined sustainable quotas can be enforced; iii) we can define meaningful sustainable quotas that come close to the current demand. We know that regulating harvest does not stop illegal takes. Despite whaling regulation after WWII, illegal whaling continued for decades [3]. The introduction of wolf culls in the USA actually increased poaching activities [4] while one-off ivory sales in 1999 and 2008 did nothing to halt elephant
poaching. Governance issues over the ivory supply chains, including stockpiling, make enforcing quotas challenging if not impossible [5,6]. We have not yet adequately assessed what could be a sustainable ivory yield. To do so, we develop a compartmental model composed of a two-sex agestructured demographic model and an ivory production and harvest model. We applied several offtake and quota strategies to define how much ivory could be sustainably harvested. We found that the sustainability space is very small. Only 100 to 150kg of ivory could be removed from a reference population of 1360 elephants, levels well below the current demand. Our study shows that lifting the ivory ban will not address the current poaching challenge. We should instead focus on reducing consumer demand.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2951-2956
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number21
Early online date15 Sept 2016
Publication statusPublished - 7 Nov 2016

Bibliographical note

This work was unfunded, DL and PL thank their families for their comprehension. PL thanks C. Moss and many private donors for supporting the Amboseli data collection. We thank Enrico Pirotta for early discussions about the model and reviewers whose suggestions improved the manuscript.


  • sustainability
  • conservation
  • wildlife management
  • elephants
  • ivory harvesting


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