Illegal trade seizures: Elephant ivory in Europe

Mapping the crimes

Africa’s elephants are in the midst of a poaching crisis, fuelled by demand for ivory in Asia, primarily in China and Vietnam.

Between 2004-15, the population of the African savannah elephants dropped by 30 per cent while populations of African forest elephants suffered even more devastating declines, losing 65 per cent of their numbers between 2002-13. Poaching for ivory has been a significant factor in these declines.

At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Conference of the Parties in 2016, world governments, with the support of EU Member States, adopted a resolution recommending that countries close their domestic ivory markets.

Already leading the way are two of the world’s largest ivory markets, the US and China. The US has adopted a near-total domestic ivory ban and China, the world’s largest ivory market, has promised to close its domestic market by the end of 2017. The effects of the ban in China is allegedly already having an impact, with traders reporting prices falling for raw ivory by as much as 50 per cent in two years.

The European Union (EU) has not adopted such progressive measures to close its ivory markets. This is a major concern. There is a lack of acknowledgement of the role the EU plays in the global ivory trade. The EU is considered to be the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory. The majority of the legal ivory exports from the EU are to China and Hong Kong, where significant levels of illegal ivory trade persist. This legal trade stimulates demand and undermines enforcement efforts, providing a loophole through which illegal ivory may be sold due to the difficulty of distinguishing legal from illegal ivory.

A recent guidance document issued by the European Commission recommending a ban on re-export of raw ivory is welcome progress but it does not go far enough. The EU must prohibit all re-exports of worked ivory as well, and take steps to close European domestic ivory markets.

The UK Government looked to be leading the way within Europe with a promise to close the domestic ivory market in 2010. However, despite repeated commitments the UK’s domestic ivory market is still operational with seemingly little appetite for change.


A male bull elephant swims across the Chobe River, Botswana, by Jon Rawlinson

Ivory seizures in Europe

EIA has collected data on European ivory seizures from enforcement agencies, press releases, governments, NGOs and media reports. While by no means comprehensive, EIA has identified nearly 200 seizures of more than 11 tonnes of ivory in 14 European countries since 2000. These seizures represent ivory sourced from approximately 1,800 elephants. In all likelihood, this reflects a fraction of the actual illegal ivory trade connected with Europe during the past 17 years.

In comparison, legal re-exports from the EU between 2003-14 totalled 2.8 tonnes of pre-convention raw ivory, nearly all since 2007, and 1.2 tonnes of worked ivory, 60 per cent of which occurred between 2011-12. These legally reported figures, four tonnes in total, are dwarfed by the weight of seizures occurring since 2000 and recorded by EIA.

The map includes seven large scale seizures (over 500kg), three of which took place as recently as 2016. Such large seizures are indicative of criminal organisations working across borders. Further, the sheer volume of seizures occurring within Europe highlights the significant role the EU plays in the global ivory trade.

The apparent dominance of Brussels Airport (due to the number of seizures at the airport, these data points have been mapped across the entirety of the Brussels area) is a perfect example of this. It should be noted that an important factor to consider in relation to the large number of seizures at Brussels Airport is the availability of data, compared to other countries in Europe; EIA encourages all governments to make information on ivory seizures publicly available.

Although frequent, seizures occurring in Brussels have been mainly small, air-bound consignments. In contrast, records show that France has seized nearly twice as much in volume overall, with the largest seizure weighing more than 200kg. The UK’s role is also significant, representing nearly a quarter of the weight of all seizures below 500kg and 17 per cent of the whole seizure volume plotted on this map.

Half of the incidents mapped involved ivory trafficking by air, transiting in Europe en route to North America and Asia; of these, 33 consignments entered the continent destined for addresses within Europe. Such seizures often feature ingenious concealment methods; in some circumstances, for example, the ivory has been disguised to look like wooden statues.

The number of seizures, methods of concealment and delivery methods shows that large scale logistics companies and the transportation sector have a crucial role to play in risk-managing ‘hot routes’ used to transport ivory.


Ivory seized at Heathrow Airport, London, November 2015 (c) Border Force


Global ivory seizures linked to the EU

Since 2000, seizures of ivory attributed to the EU but seized outside of Europe have totalled 405kg. Again, this is likely to be only a fraction of the actual level of illegal ivory entering the global markets from a European source.

Ivory seizures are considered linked to the EU when, upon seizure, they were either sent from or had transited the EU.

Vietnam has emerged in recent years as a prominent destination for ivory transiting in the EU; seven consignments have been seized in Vietnam since 2011, six of which were linked to France. Two large consignments of illegal ivory were also seized within Germany destined for Vietnam.

China still stand-outs as a key destination for ivory from the EU. China has made several seizures of ivory coming from Belgium, France, the UK, Italy, Portugal, Germany and The Netherlands. A third of these seizures are related to postal consignments, again indicating the need for logistics companies to improve awareness and detection of illegal ivory.



Call for the EU to close its legal ivory markets

The existence of parallel legal markets for wildlife parts and products, including ivory, undermines conservation and enforcement efforts. Legal ivory normalises the ownership of ivory, stimulates demand and complicates enforcement efforts making it difficult to distinguish between what is legal and what is not.

Given that most illegal ivory seized in Europe consists of worked ivory, it is crucial that the EU goes beyond an export ban of raw ivory and also prohibits exports of worked ivory. Poaching for ivory and the needless deaths of so many elephants has to stop. The EU can aid efforts to stop the illegal ivory trade by prohibiting the sale of ivory within the EU, important measures which would support China’s commendable decision to close its domestic ivory market.

Finally, it is clear that a large amount of ivory, both legal, as reported by CITES, and illegal, is shipped from the UK to Asian markets. EIA urges the UK Government to join the US and China in leading the charge against the ivory trade and close its domestic ivory market.



Data has been collected using a number of sources, including enforcement agency press releases and other government publications, NGO and media reports. While extensive, the data likely reflects only a small proportion of the actual illegal ivory trade conducted over the past 17 years. EIA welcomes updates, comments and clarifications.

The dataset is available for research and analysis on request from charlottedavies(at)