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“I saw the ivory trade ban come in [in 1989] and I saw elephants recover for nearly 20 years…The ban worked. The ban worked beautifully…It’s only really been since 2008 it has stopped working properly.  That’s when some partial sales took place and stimulated demand that was dormant”

~ Iain Douglas-Hamilton CBE Founder Save the Elephants

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Title:  Article four - Genocide Of The Jumbos

Published:  First published March 2019

Author: Save Our Rhino & Action For Rhinos

Family:  Elephantidae

IUCN conservation status:  Vulnerable

CITES status:  Appendix. I except populations of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa which are Appendix. II

The African Elephant - Natures Gentle Giant

Africa’s elephants (Loxodonta Africana) are the largest extant land animals on earth (larger than their Asian cousins.  Noticeable physical characteristics distinguish between the two species including ears, head and body shape and tusk size – African elephants have larger tusks which make them more valuable to poachers).

Elephants are among the world’s most intelligent animals.  They have the largest brain of any land animal and three times as many neurons (a nerve cell that is the basic building block of the nervous system) as humans.  Elephants have been witnessed to demonstrate impressive mental capabilities, experience a range of emotions, have the ability to understand human body language and live in complex, matriarchal social structures.  A 2014 study conducted by the university of Sussex and Brighton found African elephants also had the capabilities to determine ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices. Despite their colossal size (African elephants weigh in anywhere between 2.5 and 7 tons), they are known for being the graceful, gentle giants of the African landscape.

Protecting Africa’s Elephants:

In the mid 1960s, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) called for a treaty to address illegal exports and imports of endangered, threatened species.  Almost one decade later, in 1975, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) was formed.  The objective of the convention was to ensure international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.  In 1977, CITES gave Africa’s elephants an appendix. 2 status, permitting international trade for primarily commercial purposes under the treaties regulations.

In 1978, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed by the United States congress in 1973 with the purpose of recovering and protecting imperilled species and the eco-systems on which they depend listed the African elephant as threatened.  Under the act, species are classified as either endangered (in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range) or threatened (species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future).  Special concessions were made to allow commercial ivory trading including import and export of African elephant ivory.

By 1989 more than 400,000 elephants had been killed in East Africa alone during the previous decade and it was estimated in excess of 90% of internationally traded ivory derived from poached elephants.  The same year, in response to the crisis U.S. Congress passed the African Elephant Conservation Act, giving the president the power to ban African elephant ivory imports into the U.S. for commercial purposes.  In July 1989 there was a symbolic ivory stockpile burn to get the message across that people should no longer buy ivory products. That same year, in October, at the seventh meeting of the CITES Convention of the Parties (CoP7), international trade of elephant ivory for commercial purposes was prohibited (effective from January 1990) and Africa’s elephants were transferred to appendix 1 status.

Genocide Of The Jumbos:

Harvested from the tusks of elephants, ivory prized for its close grained texture, hard surface and luminescent sheen has been the material of choice in the manufacturer of everyday curios, fine jewellery, fragile carvings, religious artefacts and decorative pieces for centuries and a staple black market commodity for decades.  Poaching and hunting was widespread, particularly during colonial times when the hunting of Africa’s big game (including Cape Buffalo and rhinos) was considered the sport of noblemen.  In 1870, David Livingstone estimated the number of African elephants slain for the English market alone to be around 44,000.  In 1894, the international market was estimated to have consumed some 65,000 elephants, during which time poaching was also occurring.  In 1930, Africa was teeming with an estimated five million elephants.  By 1976 Iain Douglas-Hamilton CBE (founder of Save the Elephants) estimated that number had plummeted to approximately 1.3 million.  One decade later that total had halved.  

Between the 1970s and 1980s hunting was surpassed by wide scale poaching fuelled by demand predominantly from Europe, the United States and Japan who collectively consumed around 80% of global trade.  Poachers were awarded as little as $2-$3 per kilogram of raw ivory while dealers were commanding as much as one hundred times that price.  Total exports of raw ivory from Africa in the mid 1970s are thought to be 991 tonnes, accounting for the deaths of an estimated 55 000 elephants a year. At this time, China had yet to become the economic force we know today and the countries ivory consumption was considered negligible.  Eastern Africa suffered substantial losses during the poaching epidemic of the 80s and previous safe havens such as the Tsavo National Park, Kenya and Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania became expansive elephant grave yards. During this time it’s estimated between 75,000 and 100,000 elephants were killed each year and up to 80% of herds in some regions, massacred.

After a decade of indiscriminate poaching in many elephant range states across Africa, it became clear there were deep flaws within the CITES mandate (the backbone of the convention).  Failure to control trade was surreptitiously encouraging it.  In response to growing international concern, CITES was forced to retract its support for trade and in 1989, implemented a blanket ban on the commercial trade of ivory.  The trade closure relieved the pressure caused by poaching and, for the net decade (between 1989 and 1990) key populations stabalised and/or showed positive signs of recovery so much so that by 1997, at the tenth CITES Conference of Parties (CoP10) in Harare, members voted to down list elephants in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe to Appendix. 2 subject to stringent safeguards including prohibiting regular international ivory trade for commercial purposes.  The same year, complacent because of the success of the ban, the convention agreed to an “experimental” one-off sale of 49 metric tons of ivory from government stockpiles in Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to Japan.


Trading Tusks For Trinkets:

In 1999, CITES down listed South Africa’s elephants to appendix. 2, again prohibiting international ivory trade for commercial purposes.  Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe’s governments exported the agreed 49 metric tons of ivory to Japan raising approximately $5 million.  The move was later termed a “lethal experiment by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) as the sale perpetuated demand for ivory and new consumer markets began to emerge, including China (now the main driver of the illegal ivory trade).

The sale had devastating consequences as the influx of ivory into Chinese markets reinvigorated the government approved ivory carving industry which had been waning since the 1989 trade ban.  Elephant poaching across Africa began to escalate as demand from China increased but despite the upsurge in poaching, in 2002, CITES once again agreed to another “one off sale”. South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia were permitted to sell 60 metric tons of government stock piled ivory.  In 2008, that amount was increased by CITES to 108 metric tons.  Japan and China were the named recipients and Zimbabwe was also granted permission to sell their stock piles in a sale which would raise approximately $15 million.  The China National Arts & Crafts Group Corporation, Beijing Ivory Carving Factory, Guangzhou Daxin Ivory Factory and Beijing Mammoth Art Co., Ltd participated in China’s purchase of raw ivory collectively receiving 62 metric tons.  Almost all the ivory sold was sourced from elephants who died of natural causes (an interesting little nugget of information pro-trade supporters forget when discussing the possibility of offloading government stockpiles of rhino horn)

As a consequence of the sales, demand escalated and for the second time in CITES history, Africa’s elephants faced a crisis as demand for ivory once again increased.

Matriarch Qumquat (left) pictured with her family in the Amboseli National Park on the 27th October 2012 by photographer and co-founder of the Big Life Foundation, Nick Brandt.  Hours after Nick’s picture was taken the entire family (above) were slaughtered, except one year old calf, Quanza, currently in the care of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

 (Image credit:s Nick Brandt and Sheldrick Wildlife Trust)

Today, Africa’s elephant populations stand at around 450,000-470,000 animals (roughly a 91% decrease in just eighty years). Habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and civil unrest have contributed to elephant population declines however indiscriminate poaching has had the most prolific detrimental effect and around 80% of all raw ivory traded comes from poached elephants.

Proponents of a legalised trade of rhino horn use comparisons between prohibition of elephant ivory and rhino horn as the reason Africa’s two flagship species are indiscriminately hunted.  They condemn the CITES ban as being the single, most important cause for the increase of poaching of both species and claim before bans were implemented and legalised trade was permitted, markets were controlled and species were protected.  It is evidently clear the CITES “legalised sales” combined with increased wealth in East Asia stimulated demand for ivory and reinvigorated China’s ailing government funded ivory carving industry as well as inadvertently fuelling the existence of black market enterprises.  Such claims by pro-trade supporters is in contradiction to research conducted by the  Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) who have noted a considerable drop in the price of ivory since China instated their domestic ivory ban in January 2018.  In an article published in The Guardian In 2015 the WJC were being offered raw ivory for an average of US$1322/kg in 2015, but by October 2016 that price had dropped to $750/kg, and by February this year prices were as much as 50% lower overall, at $660/kg.

In 2004 there were nine factories and thirty one authorised retail outlets.  By 2013 37 factories were in operation with 145 retail outlets selling hand carved ivory across China according to a 2014 publication called “Elephant ivory trade in China: Trends and drivers”.  The retail value of China’s carving industry was estimated to worth around $2,000,000 annually between the mid 1960’s to 1980’s.  In 2010, one kilogram of raw ivory was worth approximately $750 by 2014 prices had tripled to $2100 and today, as a consequence of the sales, the African elephant has become the single greatest source of ivory.

CITES wasted considerable time implementing trade prohibition before which almost one hundred thousands elephants needlessly perished every year for almost a decade.  The CITES enforcement combined with public awareness campaigns, changing consumer tastes and the implementation of international bans allowed elephant populations in countries with adequate funding for protection to recover and ivory markets were virtually eliminated.  

Historically, motivations for purchasing ivory include economic, cultural, aesthetics and religion.  Social value associated with monetary wealth and a status symbol, as historically only a privileged few people owned ivory Today, possessing an ivory carving, especially high end ivory, gives owners a sense of prestige as elaborate ivory carvings are viewed as status symbols.

Advocates of a legalised trade of rhino horn claim the international ban of the sale of ivory combined with the “symbolic” destruction of government owned ivory stockpiles is perpetuating the ivory trade and driving markets further underground. TRAFFIC’s (trade monitoring network) Tom Milliken suggests Ivory seizures and burning of stock piles does not necessarily increase poaching as elephant ivory is not perishable and can be stored for decades without degrading and so many specimens destroyed are “old ivory” and not sourced from recent seizures.  Likewise, seizures conducted by law enforcement officials are also not necessarily recently harvested specimens but possibly ones circulating for many months or even years before they are recovered.

In light of the evidence that the two “one off sales” of African elephant ivory, combined with increased wealth in Asia has stimulated a relentless demand for ivory why would anyone support a legalised trade of rhino horns?  Pro-trade advocates have yet to either conduct or produce any significant research in user countries to support claims that current stockpiles of rhino horns combined with regular harvesting of horns of private rhinos can sustain not only the current market but the potential market also.  Estimated rhino horn needed to sustain the current market is based solely on the estimated weights of horns poached from live animals.  No consideration is taken for the fake rhino horn products currently in circulation (of which there are no definitive numbers).  No consideration has been taken towards potential new markets (which includes first time users of rhino horn, those who currently want but can not afford rhino horn or those who desire rhino horn products will not purchase illegally).

As with any trade comes the desire to maximize profit and increase demand, which inevitably leads to marketing aimed at stimulating demand to increase sales.