Dissecting the illegal ivory trade: an analysis of ivory seizures data

PLoS One. 2013 Oct 18;8(10):e76539. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0076539. eCollection 2013.


Reliable evidence of trends in the illegal ivory trade is important for informing decision making for elephants but it is difficult to obtain due to the covert nature of the trade. The Elephant Trade Information System, a global database of reported seizures of illegal ivory, holds the only extensive information on illicit trade available. However inherent biases in seizure data make it difficult to infer trends; countries differ in their ability to make and report seizures and these differences cannot be directly measured. We developed a new modelling framework to provide quantitative evidence on trends in the illegal ivory trade from seizures data. The framework used Bayesian hierarchical latent variable models to reduce bias in seizures data by identifying proxy variables that describe the variability in seizure and reporting rates between countries and over time. Models produced bias-adjusted smoothed estimates of relative trends in illegal ivory activity for raw and worked ivory in three weight classes. Activity is represented by two indicators describing the number of illegal ivory transactions--Transactions Index--and the total weight of illegal ivory transactions--Weights Index--at global, regional or national levels. Globally, activity was found to be rapidly increasing and at its highest level for 16 years, more than doubling from 2007 to 2011 and tripling from 1998 to 2011. Over 70% of the Transactions Index is from shipments of worked ivory weighing less than 10 kg and the rapid increase since 2007 is mainly due to increased consumption in China. Over 70% of the Weights Index is from shipments of raw ivory weighing at least 100 kg mainly moving from Central and East Africa to Southeast and East Asia. The results tie together recent findings on trends in poaching rates, declining populations and consumption and provide detailed evidence to inform international decision making on elephants.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Animals
  • China
  • Commerce / economics
  • Commerce / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Conservation of Natural Resources*
  • Crime
  • Elephants*
  • Humans
  • Incisor*

Grant support

This work was funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative Project 17-020 “Enhancing the Elephant Trade Information System to Guide CITES policy”. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.