Mass Produce Ivory

Photo credit: Jian Bautista

Poaching Earth’s endangered animals is still a lucrative line of work. Spurred by high demand in China and the United States, poachers kill at least 20,000 elephants a year for their ivory tusks.

Poachers are clever and resourceful. They have complex global supply chains that separate tusks individually, and their smugglers move them through random ports before their final destination. They can also be incredibly violent. Park rangers are routinely killed by poachers in Sub-Saharan Africa. This industry flourishes despite international attempts to stifle it, and the results are devastating. Tanzania’ elephant population dropped 60 percent in the last five years. The northern white rhinoceros was declared functionally extinct in March 2018, a result brought about by the hefty price that their horns can fetch alongside ivory.

Poaching is sustainable because the industry deliberately built itself to exist under the nose of law enforcement. They understand the system and how to exploit its weaknesses. Poaching is profitable because international bans do not stop market demand. In fact, the price of ivory is artificially high because there is little competition and it’s easy for the strongest cartels to monopolize the business.

Given that poaching continues to thrive at the expense of vulnerable species, new approaches must be undertaken immediately. The best approach sounds counterintuitive at first. We need to mass produce ivory to flood targeted markets, and we can do that without harming any animals. To understand this, we need to look at the how and the why.

How ivory can be mass produced is through synthetic manufacturing. Synthetic ivory has already been successfully developed in laboratories. A research team at the University of Oxford used hydroxyapatite, the mineral that partially constitutes human bone, to create a block of imitation ivory. Liquid silkworm silk can be introduced to substitute the collagen in natural ivory. This makes the synthetic ivory easy to carve, which suits the needs of most consumers.

This technology is ready to transition into mass production. However, there are legality and visibility challenges to surmount. The legal problem comes from the fact that the ivory trade is already criminalized in a lot of countries. It is not clear if synthetic ivory falls outside of the legal definition of ivory. Therefore, governments need to make a concerted effort to apply exception to synthetic ivory. The visibility challenge implies that a well-publicized distribution of synthetic ivory will encourage black market smugglers to seek and destroy competing ivory. It is in their interest to maintain the high price of natural ivory. It is in our interest to flood the market with synthetic ivory covertly, so consumers and smugglers will be none the wiser.

The next question that we need to answer is why this should be done. Two observations can be made: the price of ivory is artificially high, and the black market appears to be highly concentrated by a few millionaire kingpins. Mass producing synthetic ivory would introduce competition by severely undercutting the price of natural ivory. This is an expansion of a strategy already proposed by Pembient, a Seattle-based company that builds rhinoceros horns from 3D printers. Their fake horns are indistinguishable from real horns, and can be sold at one-eighth the cost in most markets.

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It is important that synthetic ivory be marketed as genuine. Of course, this amounts to defrauding the customer.

I don’t care.

Unlike fraud in the medical profession, for example, fake ivory bears no real effect on consumers’ livelihoods. Many consumers purchase ivory for use in traditional eastern medicine, where tusk powder is believed to remove your toxins and give skin a luminous glow. The Chinese government even approved a grant for a pure ivory pill in 2006, which was absurdly claimed to help cure tuberculosis. Synthetic ivory will have the same placebo effect on people’s health as natural ivory. Many other consumers in China and the United States purchase ivory for the aesthetic appeal that artisans carve. All of these consumers indirectly have blood on their hands. The sin of defrauding them is acceptable compared to our vulnerable species and the park rangers who die to protect them.

It is imperative that we maintain maximum pressure against poachers in order for this to work. The cost and risk for poachers to do business must be kept high, so that synthetic ivory can capture a dominant market share. Anti-poaching teams should intensify their operations during this transition period. Disrupt supply chains, burn captured ivory stockpiles and arrest or shoot poachers on sight. The black market has always rebounded after these intense anti-poaching measures before. This time will be different. They will discover that their consumers are no longer desperate to reconnect with them because synthetic ivory has been consistently and covertly supplying their demand at a much cheaper price.

A combination of maximum pressure and cheap synthetic ivory may deal the killing blow to the illegal ivory trade. It is at least worth a shot because the status quo is witnessing the continuous slaughter of Earth’s remaining elephant populations. Humans have the technology to destroy the evils of poaching. Elephants do not. It is time that we use our technology to be good stewards of biodiversity.


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