Human fascination and desire for ivory dates back beyond the ancient Egyptians.
It has been carved, produced and used to decorate items such as furniture, musical instruments, sculptures and figurines, billiard balls, jewellery, name(signature) seals and even chopsticks.
Our obsession with ivory has led to the substance being referred to as White Gold and resulted in millions of elephants being killed throughout history for their tusks.
In the late 1970’s and early-mid 1980’s half of the African elephant population – some 600,000 elephants (possibly more) were killed in just one decade.
World attention and awareness was focused through campaigns on the ever increasing elephant slaughter which eventually resulted in a 1989 world wide ban implemented by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) on the selling and trading of ivory.
While isolated cases of poaching have occurred since and the loss of habitat and human-elephant conflict have negatively impacted elephant populations across both Africa and Asia the 1989 CITES ivory ban was a huge reprieve for the surviving populations of African elephants and for two decades their numbers stabilised and even started increasing in many areas.
This began to change in 2008-2009 when once again elephants found themselves under large scale attack for their prized tusks. Basic firearms and bow & arrows once used to kill elephants have now been replaced with weapons such as semi-automatic rifles, grenades, poison, helicopters and night vision goggles.
It is estimated that around 20,000 elephants are currently being killed throughout Africa each and every year in this renewed poaching surge. This equates to approximately one elephant being killed every 25 minutes to supply the black market demand for ivory.
Populations have plummeted and continue to decline rapidly across Africa.
Tanzania (East Africa) is reported to have lost more than half of their elephant population since 2007 – more than 50,000 elephants. In central Africa the population of forest elephants has declined by more than 60%.
Whilst elephants have roamed the African landscape for countless generations, today 8 out of every 10 elephants deaths is a result of being illegally killed by poachers.
Debate rages as to what has initiated this new wave of illegal killing.
•Many believe two “one-off” sale events sanctioned by CITES from Southern African countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa & Zimbabwe) who were allowed to sell their ivory stockpiles to Japan in 1999 (54.6 tonnes) and to China & Japan in 2008 (102 tonnes) sent mixed signals to consumers wanting to purchase ivory products.
•Countries such as China and Thailand have implemented ivory registration systems which are designed to document & account for legal ivory sales but have become systems used to funnel large volumes of illegal poached ivory into the market and shopfronts with ‘legal’ certification.
•Increasing wealth throughout the world especially in Asian countries such as China means ivory is now in reach for many more people who may have once only been able to desire it. Prices have increased from roughly $150/kg in 2002 to over $1500 in 2013.
•As diamonds once did in Sierra Leone and Liberia, elephant ivory is now funding & fuelling conflicts across Africa, with rebel groups such as the LRA & al-Shabab targeting elephants and using the ivory to fund their operations. In some poaching cases even the national armed forces of the countries themselves are implicated.
•The participation of organised and sophisticated crime syndicates in the illegal ivory network have fostered corruption and allowed large scale poaching to occur and consignments to evade authorities. It is estimated that only 10% of shipments are discovered with ivory now being concealed in bags of fertiliser, wrapped in chilli to deter sniffer dogs, hidden in shipments of dried fish, sprayed and disguised to look like timber and chocolate and sadly even transported in coffins draped in a national flag.
Whilst it is likely that a combination of the above points have resulted in the recent surge corruption, greed, transnational gangs & syndicates, weak / poor governance and lax law enforcement including minimal punishments for wildlife crime are all contributing to the ongoing elephant carnage.
Today, the use of ivory in many of the items in which it was previously used has ceased and been replaced with synthetic products such as plastic. Sadly however,
in a modern and industrialised world it is now desired for the simple act of showcasing and displaying one’s wealth and status.
Unless we can change this desirability for ivory and halt the current poaching epidemic elephants will continue to disappear from large areas of their natural range and could be potentially lost forever.