The recent ivory trade frenzy, fueled by Asia’s demand for ivory trinkets and Africa’s willingness to supply ivory by slaughtering elephants in record numbers, is threatening the extinction of the African elephant, some say possibly as soon as 2020.
Rapid Decline in the African Elephant Population
Africa’s elephant population was estimated to be between three to five million in the 1930s-1940s. Then in the 1950s, the craze for ivory began and as many as 100,000 elephants were killed per year. By the 1980s, the population of the African elephants had been decimated with only about 600,000 remaining. Concern for the extinction of the African elephant led to banning the sale of ivory in 1990, which effectively led to a decrease in elephant slaughter. Today, there are an estimated 450,000 – 700,000 African elephants.
Unfortunately, illegal trade in ivory has recently resurged. 2011 was the worst year on record for elephant killings since the 1990 ban with nearly 40 tons of illegal ivory seized. An estimated 25,000-35,000 African elephants were killed in 2011, with 2012 continuing apace. At this rate, some estimate that the African elephant could go extinct within 10-30 years.
Who is driving the illegal trade in ivory?
The ivory trade is driven by two simple factors: supply and demand. Tragically, it is the demand from the rising middle class in Asia for simple ivory trinkets such as religious figurines, bookmarks, cups, combs, earrings, chop sticks that is driving the supply from Africans who are willing to slaughter elephants to gain from this very profitable business. Poachers can make up to $1,800 per pound for illegally selling ivory tusks.
So which countries are the main players in the ivory trade? According to TRAFFIC, the organization that monitors wildlife trade, the majority of illegal elephant ivory shipments come out of Tanzania, Kenya, and several Central African countries and end up in either China or Thailand.
China recently passed Japan as the world leader in purchasing ivory and its voracious demand has led to a tripling in the price of ivory. Almost 70 percent of illegal ivory winds up in China, where a single pound can cost as much as $7,000US per kilogram. The Chinese people have historically viewed ivory as a status symbol and with its rising middle class, many more Chinese want to purchase household items made of ivory. Chopsticks and billiard balls made of ivory are being manufactured in record numbers by new ivory carving factories that have governmental support.
Thailand is another strong market for the traffic of ivory. This country is a popular tourist destination where visitors from all over the world can easily obtain ivory jewelry because of weak laws governing the sale of ivory products.
In the Philippines, Catholic icons carved from ivory are greatly sought after. How tragic is it that an animal that is known for its intelligence and sensitive nature is mercilessly murdered to make an icon designed to bring its holder closer to God? The use of ivory for religious artifacts extends beyond the Philippines to Europe. President Sleiman of Lebanon gave Pope Benedict XVI an incense burner made of ivory and gold as a gift.
As long as there are people who want to spend money on ivory, and that number is increasing despite the ivory ban, there will be people willing to kill to make it available to them. As with many illegal money-makers, the ivory trade is now mostly run by organized crime gangs. These criminals use helicopters and automatic weapons to mow down entire families of elephants at a time. They then smuggle the ivory out of Africa and into the hands of Asian buyers who will carve the ivory into knickknacks.
Many African nations are attempting to control illegal poaching by deploying armed park rangers who patrol the national parks where elephants reside. However, the rangers are mostly fighting a losing battle with poachers who outnumber them and have more sophisticated weapons.
Here’s a list of some of the African countries supplying illegal ivory: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Central African Republic, Gabon, Cameroon, Sudan, Congo, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Nigeria. There is so much more to be said here, but we will have to continue in another blog.
Please stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about the suppliers of illegal ivory.
LINKS TO EXCELLENT GRAPHICS/CHARTS:
- Ten Asian Countries with Most Ivory Seized 1989-2011 (National Geographic)
- African Elephant Range and Estimated Population (National Geographic)
- Illegal Ivory Trade Seizures (New York Times)