Death by Ivory

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Standing at an average height of 11 ft. and weighing 6 tons, the African elephant is the largest mammal walking the Earth. As they migrate through the African continent, their presence profoundly shapes the ecosystem.1 The animal is vital to the survival of several species varying from trees that rely on elephants to disperse their seeds to the smaller ground animals who drink from the water that accumulates in their giant indented footprints. The African elephant is indisputably beautiful, intelligent and social; but it is in grave danger. Approximately 400,000 individual African elephants are left in the wild, and their existence is constantly and heavily threatened by human activity.2

A herd of Elephants in Tsavo West National Park, Kenya | Courtesy of Martin Roemers

In 2004, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the African Elephant to be vulnerable – meaning that they are at a high risk of becoming extinct or endangered in the near future. According to the IUCN, a species is considered endangered if there is a : “50–70% population decrease over 10 years, a total geographic area less than 5,000 km2 (or local population area less than 500 km2), a population size less than 2,500 adults, a restricted population of 250 adults, or a statistical prediction that it will go extinct within the next 20 years.”3

The elephant is hunted at the rate that it is because of its ivory tusks. The most distinguishable features of an elephant are its elongated incisors which are made of ivory: a hard, white and extremely valuable and durable material. This “white gold” is currently worth a total of $1,500 per pound and is sold primarily as fashion and ornamental items carved into jewelry, art pieces or kept as a trophy and a sign of wealth.4 To collect this ivory, poachers kill elephants and mutilate the animal’s head to extract the tusks from their root in the cranial cavity.5

The remains of more than 300 elephants killed by poachers in Cameroon | Courtesy of Brent Stirton of National Geographic

This ivory trade was banned in 1989 under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which mentions that the Elephas Maximus and “all parts and derivatives of the species” are to be protected.6 Despite the convention, the ivory trade is very much alive and is decimating the species. Five African countries continue to provide ivory Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi and Burundi because herds reside within the states’ boundaries or because they possess stocks of ivory ready to sell to the highest bidder.7

Poachers, who are for the most part locals, rely on the money made from selling tusks to sustain their family. As was the case with John Kaimio a 33-year-old Kenyan man who admitted to killing 70 elephants and was sentenced to prison. Kaimio explained that before entering this business his family would rely on livestock, but the arid climate killed the animals and any resources needed to survive. In his own words Kaimio explained that he went into the business of poaching to meet the needs of his family, “to buy food and pay for my child to go to boarding school. This amount could change things.”8

Despite the widespread structural poverty in these countries, poaching remains a cruel business and organizations around the world fight to put an end to this illicit trade. One of these organizations is The Elephant Information System (ETIS) which tracks down parties of the illegal ivory trade. It has classified countries like China, Kenya, Malawi, Malaysia, Uganda, and Vietnam as being of primary concern because of the vast amounts of ivory that have been seized or because they serve major transit points for ivory.9 China remains the world’s largest consumer of legal and illegal ivory that is used for medicine, ornaments, and all kinds of carvings. It is estimated that 50% to 70% of poached ivory ends up in China despite there being a ban in place since 1990.10

A pile of ivory collected and destroyed in China in 2014, weighing over 6 tonnes | Courtesy of CNN News

In 2017, China announced they would begin a new and heavily enforced total ban on domestic ivory with the purpose to “improve elephant conservation and combat illegal ivory trade…”11 Since December 30, 2017, China banned not only the processing  of ivory, but also the sale of it. Additionally, ivory carvers and anyone who relied on the ivory business to survive, have been encouraged to work in museums or abandon their skills altogether.

Other countries involved in the ivory trade include Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic and the United States, which is the second largest ivory consumer in the world.12 In 2017, President Trump lifted the ban on importing elephant heads from Zimbabwe and Zambia into the United States. The justification for lifting the ban is that managing the population of elephants in these African countries will benefit the survival of other species in the wild.13 As explained by the CEO of the Humane Society, Wayne Pallace, lifting this ban delivers a message to the rest of the world that by allowing rich Americans to collect trophies, the United States is dismissing the international community’s efforts to ensure the survival of the elephant risking their becoming endangered.14

A wildlife ranger stands guard as the Kenyan government burns their ivory stockpile. | Picture by Ben Curtis.

Other countries, however, are doing all that they can to protect the species. In 2016, the Kenyan government set on fire 105 tons of ivory- the remains of 6,500 poached elephants, to convey to the world that they are fervently opposed to the ivory trade. In the words of President Kenyatta, “For us, ivory is worthless unless it is in our elephants.”15 In the past 27 years countries like the United States, China, the Philippines and many others have burned their ivory stockpiles, but none has ever been as huge or as significant. This action of solidarity with the elephant in Kenya is classified as the largest burning of ivory in world history and is important to mention because Kenya is an underdeveloped country that struggles with poverty and droughts. President Kenyatta explained that the worth of their stockpile – which is roughly $150 million dollars – could aid the development of the country significantly, but prefers to burn the tusks due to the immorality of poaching.16

Demonstrators in Johannesburg, South Africa against the ivory trade. | Courtesy of the Guardian.

Governments, however, are not the only entities capable and willing to help the African elephant. More than 50 international organizations dedicate their efforts to ensure the survival of the African Elephant. Some of which include: the Nature Conservancy, Save the Elephants, Global Sanctuary for Elephants, Friends of the Elephant and many others. Much can be done to help at the individual level as well by joining protests for the banishment of the ivory trade. An example of this occurred in 2014, where thousands marched in 136 cities ranging from Washington, D.C. to Paris, to Nairobi, Kenya to pressure government officials in these countries to ban poaching and to toughen the laws that allow for it to take place.17 The cruel and unnecessary poaching of elephants will halt when the demand for the material ceases and alternative means of survival can be pursued for former poachers to support their families. The ivory trade will bring about the extinction of the African elephant, unless altered. The situation for the African elephant will improve once all people become educated of the ruthlessness behind this business, and governments all around the world become willing to join the conservation efforts to save the elephants. As humans it is our duty to prevent such intrinsically beautiful and important species from disappearing from the face of the Earth.

  1. ”African Elephant”, World Wildlife Fund, accessed April 22, 2018, https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/african-elephant.
  2. Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc., “Great Elephant Census Final Results,” Great Elephant Census, last modified 2016, http://www.greatelephantcensus.com/final-report.
  3. Jonathan Hogeback, Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v.”What Makes a Species Endangered?, accessed April 22, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/story/what-makes-a-species-endangered” Between 2007-2014, the elephant population decreased by 30% and the decline rate is rapidly accelerating primarily due to poaching for the ivory trade. The extinction of this species is then highly plausible and it becomes clear that the African elephant is rapidly approaching the threshold where they will be classified as endangered.[3. Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc., “Great Elephant Census Final Results,” Great Elephant Census, las modified 2016, http://www.greatelephantcensus.com/final-report.
  4. Mark Strauss, “Who buys Ivory? You’d be Surprised,” National Geographic, August 12, 2015, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/08/150812-elephant-ivory-demand-wildlife-trafficking-china-world/.
  5. Erin Keyes, “An Elephant’s Tears,” African Wildlife Foundation (blog), February 2, 2010,  http://www.greatelephantcensus.com/final-report.
  6. Appendices I,II, III “Convention on International Trade in Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES),” July 1973, https://www.cites.org/eng/app/appendices.php.
  7. Jane Perlez, “Ivory Trade is Banned to Save the Elephant,” The New York Times, October 1989, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/10/17/science/ivory-trade-is-banned-to-save-the-elephant.html.
  8. Stephen Messenger, “Exclusive Interview with an Elephant Poacher,” the Dodo, January 1, 2014, https://www.thedodo.com/interview-with-an-elephant-poa-390317914.html.
  9. Adam Cruise, “Ivory Trading Nations Exposed,” Conservation Action Trust, November 28, 2016, https://conservationaction.co.za/media-articles/ivory-trading-nations-exposed/.
  10. Ross Harvey, “China’s ban on domestic ivory trade is huge, but the battle isn’t won,” The Conservation, January 11, 2017,  https://theconversation.com/chinas-ban-on-domestic-ivory-trade-is-huge-but-the-battle-isnt-won-71090.
  11. “China Announcement of Domestic Ivory Ban in 2017- English Translation,” WCS Newsroom, January 3, 2017,https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/12/wildlife-watch-china-ivory-ban-goes-into-effect/.
  12. Adam Cruise, “Ivory Trading Nations Exposed,” Conservation Action Trust, November 28, 2016, https://conservationaction.co.za/media-articles/ivory-trading-nations-exposed/.
  13. Adam Edelman and Kristen Welker, “Trump Administration lifts ban on importing heads of hunted elephants,” NBC News, November 16, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/trump-administration-lifts-ban-importing-heads-hunted-elephants-n821331
  14. Adam Edelman and Kristen Welker, “Trump Administration lifts ban on importing heads of hunted elephants,” NBC News, November 16, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/trump-administration-lifts-ban-importing-heads-hunted-elephants-n821331
  15. Rachel Nuwer, “Kenya Sets Ablaze 105 tons of Ivory,” National Geographic, April 30, 2016, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160430-kenya-record-breaking-ivory-burn/.
  16. Rachel Nuwer, “Kenya Sets Ablaze 105 tons of Ivory,” National Geographic, April 30, 2016, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160430-kenya-record-breaking-ivory-burn/.
  17. Agence France-Presse, “Elephant poaching: thousands march worldwide for wildlife protection,” The Guardian, October 4, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/05/elephant-poaching-thousands-march-worldwide-for-wildlife-protection.

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This Post Has 96 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I hate the idea of poachers hunting animals, period. Elephants are true kings of animals in my eyes. They aren’t my favorite, that would be a panda, but I always thought they were so beautiful. It’s sad that elephants are endangered for their tusks. People need to knock it off with the “I got money” and learn the phrase “an elephant never forgets.”

  2. Avatar

    This was a great article It hurts me that such beautiful animals can go extinct. I love animals and it pains me to see that they get poached for their ivory. It also hurts me to hear that the US wants to uplift the ban on the importing of ivory its so sad. Overall this article was interesting and well written.

  3. Avatar

    Elephants are beautiful elegant creatures that have been captured my eye since I was a small kid. Despite the inhumane way Elephants are hunted and killed for their ivory people still buy these rings, necklaces, etc. to show off their wealth, It’s very sad that our culture and modern society has contributed to this. It is refreshing to see that many nations and organizations are taking many actions to protect the dwindling Elephant population, just because it doesn’t affect us directly doesn’t mean we can’t help. I think there needs to be reform in the jewelry community where anything with Ivory shouldn’t be bought or sold in general, it only drives demand for the hunters killing these poor animals.

  4. Avatar

    This article is interesting and shocking to know that animals like elephants can come to be extinct. For ivory having a value of $1,500, that is so expensive and as we use it as jewelry or for art pieces we can see why it is sold at such an expensive price. However, it is sad to see how these animals are being treated. They should be protected and always be on the lookout, rather than being killed for the purpose of their ivory. They can live the life they want and not be afraid to be unsafe from where they come from.

  5. Avatar

    It’s tragic how many elephants have been killed or injured just for their tusks. The article was very informative on the issue of poaching, It’s unfortunately not seen as big of an issue in The West, since it’s primarily done in Africa and Asian countries. I’m glad this article as spread more awareness about how damaging this practice has been to the environment.

  6. Avatar

    Prior to reading this article I knew that ivory was valuable, but I had no idea just how expensive it is, $1500 a pound is insane. I think that it is very noteworthy to include the story of John Kaimio, we often see poachers as heartless and being greedy, but we forget that they are humans just like us. They too have motivation to do things for those that they love, nevertheless I think it still does not excuse the illegal/wrongful actions taken. Though it is unfortunately still happening, this article gave me hope for the future as nations are now seeing that this is an epidemic that needs to be addressed now and poaching needs to be harshly prosecuted. This article has influenced me to continue to look at the news (both the good and the bad) on the subject and to be more of an advocate.

  7. Avatar

    This article opened my eyes about what is happening to these poor gentle giants. After hearing about how these terrible people have caused the elephants to become endangered it is great to see that there is some hope from all around the world to protect these amazing creatures and gives us all a sense of hope for the future of these creatures.

  8. Avatar

    This article was extremely interesting to read. This subject always hurts me. Theses amazing animals are so intelligent and have such great personalities only to be poached for their ivory. This does not only happen to elephants, it also happens to rhinos. I really hope the United States do not uplift the ban on the importation of ivory. I also hope poaching comes to an end.

  9. Avatar

    As both an environmental scientist and a fellow human of the world, it saddens me that there exists a very real possibility that the famed African elephant will disappear from history with in my lifetime. It is a sad state, especially when you consider how such a trivial matter such as the Ivory trade could potentially wipe out this great species from the earth. Consider how cemented into our culture the elephant is. With the African elephant gone, we would not have stories like Dumbo, nor would we have elephant characters in children’s books or educational television for toddlers. How will we explain what we did to the next generation?

  10. Avatar

    This is a great article. It bothers me that elephants and other animals could go extinct. I have read a book on poaching and truthfully, I feel really uncomfortable whenever I am around trophies like that. It disturbs me to know that the U.S. wants to uplift the ban on the importing of ivory in the United States. Overall, I enjoyed reading this article because it was enlightening.

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