Illegal trade seizures: large-scale elephant ivory seizures

The African savannah elephant and the African forest elephant are in decline across much of their range, primarily due to poaching to feed the ivory trade. EIA investigations have revealed that transnational organised criminal groups fuel much of the large-scale ivory trafficking from Africa to Asia.

Our ivory seizure map, updated ahead of the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), provides details of 175 large-scale ivory seizures (i.e. 500kg or more) which took place between 2000 and March 2019.

As well as locations and weights of large-scale ivory seizures, the map also provides details about the conviction outcomes and prosecutions. Additionally, we have listed 17 known ivory thefts from government stockpiles around the world.

The map highlights that Vietnam has overtaken mainland China as the world’s leading destination for illegal ivory, having made 38 large-scale ivory seizures during the reporting period. In March 2019, over nine tonnes of ivory was seized in Hai Phong, Vietnam, in the world’s largest ivory seizure to date. The following countries made the next highest number of large-scale ivory seizures after Vietnam: Hong Kong SAR (17), Kenya (14), mainland China (12) and Thailand (11).

The large-scale ivory seizures mapped here correspond to a total of approximately 293 tonnes of ivory, equivalent to an estimated 43,840 dead elephants.

Of particular concern is that only 13.7 per cent of these large-scale seizures (24) have resulted in a conviction, providing little deterrent for those involved in the illicit ivory trade and demonstrating that often enforcement action does not go beyond making a seizure, regularly letting wildlife criminals off the hook. Further, there is no publicly available information about prosecution outcomes for 90 per cent of large-scale seizures (157), highlighting the need for more transparency on actions taken following a seizure.

Disrupting wildlife trafficking networks requires effective investigations leading to the arrest and conviction of criminals involved in ivory trafficking and is fundamental in bringing about long-term and meaningful change in combatting elephant poaching.

Methodology of collecting data

The map only depicts publicly reported large-scale ivory seizures (500kg or more) and any related convictions as well as thefts from government ivory stockpiles. For example, the map does not include the recent conviction of three Chinese ivory traffickers identified by EIA investigations, as this case involved multiple seizures weighing less than 500kg.

As stated above, the map has been produced based on publicly available information. It is therefore not an exhaustive data set and represents only a fraction of the actual level of illegal trade between 2000 and March 2019. Where possible, information in the map has been verified and we welcome any new information that can be used to update our dataset. Conviction outcomes are based within the country of seizure unless otherwise stated. EIA uses the estimate of 6.7kg of ivory per elephant to arrive at an estimated figure of elephants represented by a seizure.

A list of the large-scale ivory seizures and publicly reported Government stockpile thefts represented in the map, along with additional information, are available as pdfs.

Instructions for use

The map below is fully interactive. Hovering over any point will bring up the relevant seizure data and clicking on it displays full prosecution information. Viewing the map in full-screen mode gives you access to a range of filters which allow you to further refine the points displayed. You can do this by zooming in on an area of the map or by clicking on a specific criterion, e.g. 2015. Only points relevant to the criteria selected will be displayed.

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Last updated in June 2019

Key takeaways

  • In summary, over 293 tonnes of ivory were seized between 2000 and March 2019 in 175 large-scale seizures, equivalent to an estimated 43,834 elephants. Ivory trafficking trends correlate with one of the worst declines in elephant populations in Africa between 2006-15.
  • Around 45 per cent of large-scale seizures (79 seizures), totalling over 124 tonnes, took place over the last five years alone, with the ivory seized equivalent to an estimated 18,500 elephants.
  • In the first three months of 2019, nearly 22.5 tonnes of ivory have been seized in large-scale seizures, equivalent to ivory sourced from an estimated 3,358 elephants. Large-scale seizures indicate the involvement of transnational ivory trafficking criminal groups which move large sums of money, use sophisticated smuggling methods and corrupt connections at a high-level to facilitate their criminal activities.
  • Vietnam has become the world’s leading destination for illegal ivory, surpassing China, and is implicated in 22 per cent of the total of large-scale seizures (38 seizures).
  • Open-source information and EIA investigations have highlighted that Vietnam is a preferred transit and destination point for ivory traffickers due to weak enforcement and corruption in the country. The majority of large-scale seizures in Vietnam have taken place at Hai Phong port.
  • Following Vietnam, mainland China and Hong Kong SAR remain major destinations for illegal ivory, implicated in 6.8 and 9.7 per cent of large-scale global seizures (12 and 17 seizures) respectively.
  • The majority of illegal ivory destined for Vietnamese or Chinese end-markets has been trafficked through Kenya, Uganda, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Cameroon, all of which are important source and transit countries in the illegal ivory trade.
  • Ivory traffickers predominantly use international air and maritime transport routes. Approximately 11 per cent (20) of large-scale ivory seizures took place at airports while eight per cent (14) took place at maritime ports.
  • Only 13.7 per cent of large-scale seizures resulted in some form of conviction, with most convictions taking place in mainland China.
  • Only 6.9 per cent (12) of large-scale seizures resulted in custodial sentences and/or a fine in countries such as Japan, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Egypt, Togo and Austria.
  • There is no publicly available information about prosecution outcomes for 90 per cent of large-scale seizures (157), highlighting the need for more transparency on investigation and enforcement outcomes following seizures.
  • CITES recommends that DNA analysis be carried out on all large-scale seizures to identify the origin of illegal ivory. Such analysis is unfortunately rarely conducted. Fewer than a quarter of all large-scale seizures that took place between June 2011 and 2017 were forensically examined.
  • Since 2005, there have been 17 ivory stockpile thefts, totalling over 17 tonnes of ivory. The threat of leakage from government ivory stockpiles onto the black market is a significant concern due to inconsistent and poor management of seized wildlife products.

Contact us

If you wish to use our illegal trade seizure maps and need access to the raw data or have information you wish to submit, please contact us.