Of Tusks and Terror: The Truth about Ivory
by | March 14th, 2012

The cross section of a tusk. If you look closely, you can see the diamond shaped pattern, also known as the Lines of Retzius, one reason why ivory is so desired.

What you might think you know about the ivory trade on African Elephants may be information of the past if you haven’t done your current research. Did you know that there are currently 40,000 African Elephants killed every year for their tusks? These incredibly high numbers are estimating that in fifteen years, African Elephants could be close to, if not extinct. Did you know that in the past decade the price of ivory has been driven from a measly twenty dollars to over fifteen hundred dollars per kilogram? The bau fa hu, or “suddenly wealthy” rapidly growing middle class in China has driven this price to skyrocket. Did you know that after China, the USA is the second biggest importer of illicit ivory in the world? Shame, shame. And for what? Greed? Wealth? Vanity?

In the late seventies an estimated 1.3 million African Elephants existed. Ten years later less than half remained, an average of 600,000. The cause? Poaching, second to habitat loss due to a doubling in human population.  Major public awareness campaigns were commenced worldwide to try and halt this vicious trade. The Amboeseli Elephant Research Project were critical players in the development of these campaigns and

African Elephant Distribution Map. Numbers are thought to be less than 400,000 total.

making people aware of and care about elephants. Proudly, in October 1989 at the seventh CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Convention of the Parties, governments banned the international trade of ivory. Other countries to the Convention, such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France also began to ban any import as well. In that same year, Kenya made a bold statement by burning a stockpile of twelve tons of ivory, bringing together a large community of people with a shared interest of the survival of the species. What happened next? Exactly what was hoped for, the demand went down and ivory lost its value from 300 dollars per kilo to three dollars a kilo. Elephants could now live in peace, populations began to regenerate. Kenya, who had lost ninety percent of its elephants, from 167,000 down to 16,000, now thrives at 37,000. Although the ban was mostly successful, small amounts of poaching continued mainly in West and Central Africa, where local markets existed as well as small amounts of exports to the Far East.

As populations began to thrive again, what happened next? At the next CITES Convention in 1997, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe began to down list their elephants to a less endangered status. This meant less protection for the elephants. A year later, 190 tusks and additional pieces weighing a total of 1.45 tons was seized by Taiwanese port police. The same three countries listed above were given permission to sell stockpile ivory to CITES-designated buyers, 50 tons were exported to Japan. Other countries wanted to follow suit, as did South Africa in 2000. In June, 2002 6.5 tons of ivory was seized by Singapore authorities, the largest shipment of illegal ivory since the 1989 ban. Regardless of the increased illegal activity and confiscations, at the 2002 CITES meeting Botswana, Namibia, and

Ivory signature carvings, known as "chops" in China, and hanko to the Japanese. A sign of wealth.

South Africa was given permission to export 60 tons of ivory. This sale occurred in 2008, and over 108 tons went to Japan and China. Now we’re starting to see a pattern forming, aren’t we?  Giving these countries permission to sell the stock-piled ivory, in hopes of boosting the economy, only boosted Japan and China’s appetite for the ivory, increasing its value, therefore increasing the illegal activity as well. The more valuable the ivory becomes, the more elephants are being slaughtered.

So what is happening today? Do you want the bad news or the even worse news? An estimated 470,000 elephants remain today, which has gone down from an estimated 600,000 in 1989. According to scientist Sam Wasser, an estimated 38,000 are being killed every year for their tusks. Dr. Wasser is a ivory DNA specialist, in where he discovered how to find where seizures of ivory originated from according to the DNA of the ivory. This is an extremely valuable tool in pinpointing where illegal activity is occurring so governments can be questioned and more policing can occur. Between 2007 and 2009 over 2,000 confiscations have occurred, a large increase from years past. The demand in China has escalated since the stockpile sales, with ivory carving factories and sales on the rise. If only a small percentage of the 1.3 billion people of China purchase ivory, elephants are in big trouble. Ivory now sells for 1500 dollars a kilo in the Far East. Although on the ground in Kenya, its value is much lower, a small pair of tusks could bring a poacher as much as 400 dollars, more than a casual worker makes in a year.

The incentive is paramount.

Kenya takes another stand against the illegal ivory trade, another burning took place in 2011.

With more breaking news, there has been a massacre of over 400 elephants in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park, over a period of just eight weeks. Illegal activity has been known to occur in this area, but not to this degree so quickly. Poachers are believed to have entered the park from the Chad border and were heavily armed, selling the ivory for money, guns, and ammunition. The total population of Cameroon’s elephants is believed to be as little as 1,000 individuals. In the past week over one hundred Cameroonian soldiers have been sent in to secure the park.

What can we do to stop these amazing creatures from vanishing? One easy way to help is to get the word out there. In such a technologically savvy world today, telling everyone you know about what you’ve learned about the current status of African Elephants is easy. Blog about it, facebook it, tweet it. Spread the word, and help make everyone aware!

Please join the Oakland Zoo in May for our annual Celebrating Elephants Day, where we increase public awareness about elephant welfare, and raise money for the Amboeseli Trust for Elephants.

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