Illegal trade seizures: Elephant ivory in Europe

Mapping the crimes

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

Between 2007-14, populations of the African savannah elephant 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 (pdf)PDF 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, closed its market in 2018. The ban in China is already having an impact, with traders reporting prices for raw ivory falling by as much as 50 per cent in two years.

guidance document PDF 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. In September 2017, the European Commission launched a public consultation to gather information and views regarding the closure of the domestic ivory trade within the EU, and ivory trade from and to the EU. We have submitted comments to the EU consultation. As the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory, this step could have a significant impact in reducing demand for, and trade in, ivory thereby contributing to the protection of elephants in both Africa and Asia. The majority of the legal ivory exports from the EU are to China and Hong Kong, where significant levels of illegal ivory trade persist. Due to the difficulty of distinguishing legal from illegal ivory, this legal trade stimulates demand and undermines enforcement efforts, providing a loophole through which illegal ivory may be sold.


Last updated in August 2017

Ivory seizures in Europe

We identified over 250 seizures of more than 12 tonnes of ivory in 16 European countries between January 2000 and October 2017. These seizures represent ivory sourced from approximately 1,800 elephants – but likely 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 4.1 tonnes of worked ivory,  87 per cent of which occurred between 2011-14. These government-reported figures, four tonnes in total, are dwarfed by the weight of seizures occurring since 2000 which we recorded. 

The map includes seven large-scale seizures (over 500kg), four of which took place as recently as 2016 in Germany, Spain and Austria. Such large seizures are indicative of criminal organisations working across borders.

The year 2016 observed the highest volume of seizures by weight, with over three tonnes recorded.  The top four countries that have seized the largest amount of ivory in the EU are Spain, UK, France and Germany; all four have seized over one tonne and together account for nearly three-quarters of the total EU volume. The UK’s role is also significant, representing nearly a quarter of the weight of all seizures below 500kg and over 15 per cent of the whole seizure volume plotted on this map. Indeed the UK is also the single country with the world’s largest ivory being exported legally.

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 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; we encourage all governments to make information on ivory seizures and related prosecution outcomes publicly available. Although frequent, seizures occurring in Brussels have been mainly small, air-bound consignments.


Global ivory seizures linked to the EU

Since 2000, seizures of ivory attributed to the EU but seized outside of Europe have totalled 6,490.02kg. Again, this is likely to be only a fraction of the actual level of illegal ivory linked to Europe. Ivory seizures are considered linked to the EU when, upon seizre, 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 seized within Germany, mentioned above, were linked to 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, indicating the need for logistics companies to improve awareness and detection of illegal ivory. Most significantly a large-scale seizure intended for China occurred in Malaysia in 2012. The 6,034.3kg of ivory was transhipped via Togo and Spain undetected prior to reaching Malaysia.


  • Due to the number of seizures at Brussels airport, these data points have been mapped across the entirety of the Brussels area to enable a clear visualisation of the total seizures.
  • Data has been collected using a number of published 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. We welcome updates, comments and clarifications.
  • For mapping purposes, we used 0.01kg to represent the 143 ivory seizures within EU with unknown weights. A variation of +1.43kg will be observed in the map data in comparison to the data observed the attached data sheet.
  • The dataset is available for research and analysis in these PDFs (Seizures within EU, Seizures linked to EU).