Six years after Esmond Martin’s unsolved murder, the Humane Society of the U.S. took a page from his books
HARTFORD, Connecticut––The ghost of ivory and rhino horn traffic investigator Esmond Martin still stalks ivory merchants six years after Martin, 76, was stabbed to death in his own bed on February 5, 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya, by an as yet unidentified assailant.
The neatly dressed, soft-spoken tall man with a bushy head of white hair and a silk handkerchief visible in his shirt pocket may be no more, but his methods live on, and perhaps some of his unparalleled knowledge of ivory and rhino horn, too.
“A parasol handle & jewelry”
Revealed Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block in her blog posting of January 24, 2024, sounding much like Esmond Martin himself when he revealed his findings, “In November 2023, our investigators found carved figurines, belt buckles, trinkets, a parasol handle and jewelry likely made of elephant ivory for sale in shops from New Hartford to Stamford, Connecticut, and points in between.”
Block did not identify the Humane Society of the U.S. investigators, for obvious reasons.
Osama bin Laden fit right in
Dodging death for more than 30 years, Esmond Martin was neither the first nor the last of many people who have challenged the ivory and rhino horn trafficking underworld to disappear or be found murdered by killers never named and never prosecuted.
Al Qaida militia founder Osama bin Laden (1957-2011) may have been the most notorious ivory trafficker in modern times, but––politically motivated terrorism aside––even bin Laden was probably not the most murderous ivory and rhino horn trader in his routine business dealings, if only because others motivated solely by money were at least as ruthless and better positioned to kill people who crossed them one at a time without being recognized.
Posing as an affluent art collector, Esmond Martin pioneered the techniques of methodically documenting how much ivory in what form was on the market, where.
The bad guys thought he was a buyer
Working almost entirely right out in the open, under his own name, Esmond Martin became so well known among criminal elements as an ivory buyer––though he may not ever have actually bought any––that few of the bad guys realized how much information he relayed to the international organizations working to protect elephants and rhinos from the elephant ivory and rhino horn trade.
“Of the 29 stores visited across the state,” Block wrote, reciting data much as Esmond Martin himself did after investigations, “19 had ivory for sale. Our investigators discovered a total of 169 pieces of suspected ivory, priced from $12.00 to $1,250.00.
“Our investigators were never presented with the required documentation to prove that the ivory items being sold were antiques and legally acquired,” Block added.
“Under U.S. federal law,” Block explained, “new elephant ivory cannot be imported, exported or sold across state lines. Antique ivory can be sold, provided the seller has documentation on the item’s age and origin.
“Without required documentation proving that the item is an antique at least 100 years old, however, the ivory items we discovered for sale could potentially be new ivory sourced from recently poached elephants.
“Some sellers admitted that mislabeling ivory as ‘bone’ is a common practice to get around the law,” Block continued. “At some stores, ivory pieces were labeled with misleading or false information, or sellers claimed not to know the material. Other pieces were clearly labeled and identified by the seller as ivory. But without the proper documentation, it is impossible to know whether items were imported in violation of federal law.
Connecticut ivory dealers sell to New York
“Importantly,” Block noted, “federal law does not address sales within a state, which is why state laws are needed to close the loophole in local markets.
“While some shop keepers told our investigators that they know the sale of ivory is against federal law, others gave oblique explanations of the legality of purchasing ivory, seemingly in order to make a sale,” Block suggested. “Still others may not have been aware that they were selling illicit ivory.
“Many of the shops found selling ivory were located along the coast and near the New York border,” Block finished, mentioning that “New York State banned the sale of ivory in 2014, as did New Jersey the same year.”
“Ivory Markets in the USA”
Esmond Martin and longtime fellow ivory trade investigator Daniel Stiles had a lot to do with that, shocking the conservation world in 2008 with their report Ivory Markets in the USA.
The U.S. had long considered itself to be a global exemplar for wildlife conservation, exemplified by the 1988 passage of the African Elephant Conservation Act and the U.S. role in facilitating the adoption of the 1989 global embargo on trade in live elephants, elephant ivory, and other body parts adopted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Despite all that, Esmond Martin and Daniel Stiles found 24,004 ivory items available at 657 outlets in 16 U.S. cities.
New York City had by far the most ivory for sale, with 11,376 items, followed by San Francisco (2,777) and Los Angeles (2,605).
Knife & pistol handles
Among the most characteristic U.S. uses of ivory, Esmond Martin and Daniel Stiles found, were in making knife and pistol handles.
This, together with trophy hunters’ interest in importing elephant tusks, explained why the gun lobby had become, and is still, an adamant opponent of any effort to tighten U.S. ivory trade restrictions.
Esmond Martin for the first half of his adult life was a mild-mannered American expatriate, living on inherited wealth and writing books about African history and culture.
Researching The international trade in rhinoceros products, a report published on January 1, 1979, marked a turning point in Esmond Martin’s career.
Following up, Esmond Martin produced Run Rhino Run in 1983 and Rhino Exploitation (1983), hoping to draw global attention to the decline of all species of rhino due to trophy hunting, poaching, and habitat loss.
Partnering for 18 years with Save The Elephants, a Kenya-based conservation society founded by Iain Douglas Hamilton, a friend for 45 years, Esmond Martin and his wife Chrysee Bradley, with Daniel Stiles and another fellow investigator, Lucy Vigne, produced a series of 10 in-depth investigative reports on the commercial side of the ivory trade.
Daniel Stiles, a California-born, U.C. Berkeley-educated anthropologist turned Kenyan farmer who had previously done sociological research among hunter/gatherer communities, testified later that working with Esmond Martin “almost killed me – I was lucky to survive. He was incredible––he just kept going. I’d never done anything like it before, and it changed the course of my life. He started quantifying statistics on the ivory and rhino horn trade. People before hadn’t really done that.”
Among the most influential of the Esmond Martin and Daniel Stiles collaborations were two of the first, The Japanese Ivory Industry (1985), and The Ivory Markets of Africa (2000).
In a 2003 follow-up, The Ivory Markets of East Asia, Esmond Martin and Daniel Stiles pointed out that a “The primary demand for ivory is not for use in producing consumer goods. Rather, ivory is purchased primarily in speculation.
“Ivory acquisition at all levels,” Esmond Martin and Daniel Stiles found, “appears to be motivated less by desire for ivory goods than by desire to possess contraband which at some future date may gain value precisely because it is inaccessible––either because it is contraband or because wild elephants are extinct.”
Further, Esmond Martin and Daniel Stiles discovered, the end customers tend to be many of the same people who speculate in stocks, bonds, currency, and other commodities: affluent, well-educated people, even some high donors to wildlife conservation charities who really ought to have known better.
“I found 35,000 pieces of ivory for sale in Hong Kong,” at least 80% of it from poached elephants, Esmond Martin summarized to Julianna Kettlewell of the BBC News Online science staff. “But it wasn’t in the back street markets. It was in all the major tourist areas, the expensive hotels.”
Last report found trade shift
Esmond Martin found similar in Sudan in 2005: 11,000 ivory products on display at 50 shops in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, and in the twin city of Omdurman.
There Martin also visited 150 ivory craftsmen making new products, mostly jewelry for the tourist trade.
The last of Martin’s investigative reports on ivory trafficking completed during his lifetime, Decline in the Legal Ivory Trade in China in Anticipation of a Ban, co-authored by Lucy Vigne, appeared from Save The Elephants in 2017.
The major new finding from that investigation was that while China had moved to end the traditional Chinese involvement in ivory trading and ivory goods manufacturing, the industry had relocated to Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and especially Laos.
Kitty Block in blogging about the Humane Society of the U.S. investigation of the ivory trade in Connecticut made no mention of Edmond Martin, but it followed directly in his elephant-or-rhino-sized footsteps.