A brief history of the ivory trade:
Ivory trade goes back to the 14th century with the colonization of Africa. Ivory hunters were responsible for wiping out elephants in North Africa perhaps about 1,000 years ago. At the peak of the ivory trade, pre 20th century, during the colonization of Africa, Europeans were the largest consumers of ivory.
World wars and subsequent depression caused a lull in the commodity but it increased in prosperity in the 70’s when a renewed resurgence came about. This put great pressure on the forest elephants of Asia and Africa. By the 1970s, Japan consumed about 40% of the global trade; another 40% was consumed by Europe and North America. China, yet to become the economic force of today, consumed small amounts of ivory to keep its skilled carvers in business.
In 1979, the African elephant population was estimated to be around 1.3 million, but by 1989 only 600,000 remained. Although many ivory traders repeatedly claimed that the problem was habitat loss, it became glaringly clear that the threat was primarily the international ivory trade. Throughout this decade, around 75,000 African elephants were killed for the ivory trade annually, worth around 1 billion dollars. About 80% of this was estimated to come from illegally killed elephants.
CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) attempted control of the trade but after numerous failings of regulation, a ban on ivory trade was instituted in 1989. At this time, the African elephant was declared endangered. It is widely accepted that the ivory ban worked. The poaching epidemic that had hit so much of the African elephants’ range was greatly reduced. Ivory prices plummeted and ivory markets around the world closed, almost all of which were in Europe and the USA.
But, in 1997, after much controversy and debate, CITES took the African elephant off the endangered list in some countries which allowed international trade in elephant parts.
China and Japan, in 2008, bought 108 tonnes of ivory in a “one-off” sale from southern African countries. At the time the idea was that these legal ivory sales may depress the price, thereby removing poaching pressure, an idea supported by several environmental groups.
Contrary to the advice of CITES that prices may be depressed, and those that supported the sale of stockpiles in 2008, the price of ivory has greatly increased mainly due to China’s demand and new found affluence.
Why do the Chinese continue to consume ivory? Perhaps it is because they are ignorant about how ivory is sourced.
A survey done in 2007 in Beijing by IFAW, discovered that 70% of Chinese polled did not know that ivory came from dead elephants. This led to the organization’s first ad campaign — a simple poster explaining the actual origins of ivory. A campaign done in 2013 found that the ad had been seen by 75% by China’s urban population, and heavily impacted their view on ivory. Among people classified as “high risk” — that is, those likeliest to buy ivory — the proportion who would actually do so after seeing the ad was almost slashed by half. With these statistics you would think that ivory demand would have gone down. But, it has not.
Antique shops continue to pretend that the only ivory they hold is from the pre-1989 world ivory trade ban. This way, it is legal to sell. Much of the purchasing is done on the internet. It is easy, cheap and anonymous. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, at least 18,590 animal-related items were for sale online in the country at the beginning of last year. Nearly 79 percent involved ivory.
Ivory is a very prestigious commodity and fits the cultural status quo. It is unfortunate that some that do know about the violent trade continue to support it by buying ivory.
Why can’t poachers just anesthetize the animal and saw off the exposed ivory and sell it instead of killing the elephant?
- Because 20% of the tusk is in the head.
Why would Africans want to partake in slaughtering this iconic species?
- There are three main factors involved in ivory poaching:
- ivory demand
- weak governance
Demand – is increasing because of the monetary value and status associated with ivory in China, as discussed above.
Weak governance – allows the flow of illegal poaching to go unnoticed.
Poverty – is rampant in Africa and the lure to poach is extremely desirable when factoring in the amount of money received for one tusk alone. The tusks of one elephant bring in the same amount of money that 12 or more years of farming or herding does.
Elephant numbers went from 10 million 50 years ago, to 500,000 today. Currently at this rate, they will be extinct in 10-12 years. One decade. Right now, the trade is the worst since before the 1989 world ivory trade ban.
Poachers within the last few years have gotten extremely high-tech due to the monetary incentive. They now use AK-47’s, grenade launchers, night vision goggles, GPS, and low-flying aircraft to target the innocent giants. They have become militarized and many of the poachers are connected to organized crime syndicates.
Terrorist groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army, Al Shabab, Darfurs Janjaweed and Boko Haram are using the sale of poached ivory to carry out their illicit activities. Poaching threatens peace and security in a number of countries where organized crime, and terrorism are closely linked. For example, the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, was partially funded by ivory poaching. The terrorists kill the elephant, sell the ivory (mostly to China) for an enormous monetary exchange, and proceed to fund their terrorist activities.