The Darwin Initiative Blog

Insights and personal musings from the world of biodiversity conservation and development. For more info on the Darwin Initiative see

Learning about trends in the illegal ivory trade to inform decision making on elephants

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From Saturday 24th September, experts from all over the World will gather in Johannesburg for the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties for the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species, or CITES CoP17 for short.

CITES is one of the core conventions that Darwin Initiative projects support, and we wanted to highlight this with our upcoming newsletter by inviting articles from projects working on illegal or legal trade of species. In advance of the full newsletter being published next week, we wanted to share a sneak peak!

The article below comes from Darwin project 17-020 “Enhancing the Elephant Trade Information System to guide CITES policy, led by the University of Reading. Although the project finished in 2012, its legacy is ongoing. Find out more below!

At the upcoming CITES CoP, trends in the illegal ivory trade will be a key focus of discussions. These discussions will be based around a report using data on illegal ivory seizures collected by the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS). ETIS is one of two global monitoring systems for elephants that were mandated by CITES in 1997 and it is managed by TRAFFIC International (the other being MIKE – Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants).

Clearly, it is the results that are of most interest to the audience (of policy makers and NGOs) to help inform decision making about elephants but some work is needed to obtain these results. To turn ivory seizures data into useful information about trends in the illegal ivory trade requires quite a complex statistical analysis; the analysis is complex because of the inherent biases in seizures data. Specifically, countries differ in their ability to make and report seizures – so an increase in seizures might be because of increased law enforcement, or countries getting better at reporting their seizures to ETIS, not because the illegal ivory trade is increasing. Thus, strategies for accounting for differences in the ability of countries to make and report seizures must be accounted for when trying to describe the trends in the trade.


Three elephants eating at Mana Pools in Zimbabawe, Credit: Fiona Underwood

In 2009, there were no off-the-shelf statistical methods for analyzing these data and so some analyses were ad-hoc without a coherent and robust framework. This is a major challenge for many monitoring programmes. It is often relatively easy to obtain resources to collect data, including training of those collecting data and building database to store the data. In comparison, it can be much harder to obtain funding to help turn this data into usable information for policy makers.

One component of Darwin Initiative Project 17-020 “Enhancing the Elephant Trade Information System to Guide CITES Policy”, which ran from 2009 – 2012, was to develop a methodological framework for making sense of the ETIS data. This project was a collaboration between statisticians, then at the University of Reading, and TRAFFIC International. A further project aim was to translate these statistically complex findings into simple language and concepts that could be communicated to a non-technical decision-making audience. Two indicators were developed (Transactions Index and Weights Index).

This framework is now being used routinely to produce indicators of the illegal ivory trade to inform decision making by CITES and others, on elephants. It was first used to produce indicators of the ivory trade for the previous CoP in 2013 using data from 1996 – 2011. Since then the methodology has been used to update these trends every year and most recently for the upcoming CoP. Such analyses have provided key pieces of information for the development of National Ivory Action Plans for eight CITES Parties and will continue to be useful in monitoring their progress.

by Dr. Fiona Underwood, Project Leader

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