Human fascination and desire for ivory dates back to before the ancient Egyptian pyramids were built.
It has been carved, polished and used to decorate items such as furniture, musical instruments, sculptures and figurines, billiard balls, jewellery, name (signature) seals and even things as small and trivial as chopsticks.
Human 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.
Whilst poaching has occurred throughout the years since the international ban was imposed and combined with the continued loss of natural habitat and human-elephant conflict that increases year on year, the 1989 CITES ivory ban was at the time a huge reprieve for the surviving populations of African elephants and for two decades their numbers stabilised and even started increasing in many areas.
Sketch by : Dawie Fourie
This began to change in 2007-2017 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 more than 20,000 elephants were being killed throughout Africa each and every year in this renewed poaching surge between 2007-2017. It equated to approximately one elephant being killed every 20 minutes or so to supply the black market demand for ivory.
Populations that had begun to rebound since the 1989 ban plummeted rapidly across Africa.
Tanzania in East Africa is reported to have lost more than half of their elephant population since 2007 – more than 50,000 elephants.
Mozambique in Southern Africa is reported to have lost 50% of their remaining herds who had dealt with both the poaching crises and the Mozambican civil war that raged between 1977 - 1992.
In central Africa the population of forest elephants has declined by more than 60% with some countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo reported to have lost 95% of the elephant population.
Whilst elephants have roamed the African landscape for countless generations, between 2007-2017 eight out of every ten elephants deaths was a result of being illegally killed by poachers.
Debate rages as to what 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 implemented ivory registration systems which were designed to document & account for legal ivory sales but became 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 increased from roughly $150/kg in 2002 to over $2000 in 2015.
As diamonds once did in Sierra Leone and Liberia, elephant ivory has been used to fund & fuel 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 have been 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 resulted in the recent surge - corruption, greed, transnational gangs & syndicates, weak / poor governance and lax law enforcement including minimal punishments for wildlife crime have all contributed to the illegal killing of elephants.
The global community has galvanised to some extent over the past few years which has resulted in a decline in some of the alarming statistics from between 2007-2017.
Over 150 tonnes of stockpiled ivory has been burned and crushed in recent years throughout the world as governments try to send messages of zero tolerance and attempt to discredit the allure of buying & owning ivory.
There has been an increased focus on anti-poaching measures and patrols, increased detection efforts and capabilities, stiffer penalties & prison sentences and the shutting down of once legal domestic markets which have acted as a smokescreen and cover for international trafficking of illegal ivory to be substituted into the chain.
The closure of domestic ivory markets in China and other countries a few years ago was a huge result in the attempt to turn the tide.
Despite the measures taken & progress implemented over the past couple of years elephants are still being killed in large numbers.
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 continued illegal killing of elephants they will continue to disappear from large areas of their natural range and could be potentially lost forever.