Africa’s elephants are the largest land animals on earth. Larger than their Asian cousins and distinguishable by their larger ears, a single domed head, dipped back and large tusks make them more desirable to poachers.
They’re among the world’s most intelligent animals, with 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 abilities, 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 ability to determine ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices. Despite their colossal size (weighing between 2.5 and 7 tons), they are known for being graceful, gentle giants of the African landscape.
In the mid 1960s, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) called for a treaty to address illegal exports and imports of endangered, threatened species. A decade later, in 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was formed. The objective of the convention was to ensure international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Africa’s elephants were awarded an appendix. II status permitting trade for commercial purposes.
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. The act categorises species as endangered (in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range) or threatened (likely to become endangered within the next few years). African elephant ivory import and export were allowed under special concessions.
By 1989, more than 400,000 elephants had been killed in East Africa alone during the previous decade and it was estimated that in excess of 90% of internationally traded ivory was 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. In October 1992, at the seventh meeting of the CITES Convention of the Parties (CoP7), international trade in elephant ivory was prohibited (effective from January 1990) and Africa's elephants were added to appendix I (trade is permitted in exceptional circumstances only).
Harvested from the tusks of elephants, ivory prized for its close-grained texture, tough surface and luminescent sheen has been the material of choice in the manufacture of everyday curios, fine jewellery, fragile carvings, religious artefacts and decorative pieces for centuries and a staple black market commodity for decades.
In colonial times, hunting Africa's big game (including Cape Buffalo and rhinos) was considered a noblemen's sport, which resulted in widespread poaching and hunting. 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. In 1976, Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton CBE (founder of Save the Elephants) estimated that the number had plummeted to approximately 1.3 million. A decade later, his estimation was halved.
Between the 1970s and 1980s, hunting was surpassed by wide scale poaching fuelled by demand predominantly from Europe, the United States and Japan, which 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. The country's ivory consumption was considered negligible at that time, as China hadn't yet become the economic force it is today. Eastern Africa suffered substantial elephant losses during the poaching epidemic. Previous safe havens such as the Tsavo National Park, Kenya and Selous Game Reserve, southern Tanzania became expansive elephant grave yards. Between 75,000 and 100,000 elephants were killed each year during this period, and up to 80% of herds were slaughtered in some regions.
After a decade of indiscriminate poaching across Africa, it became clear there were deep flaws within the CITES mandate (the backbone of the convention). 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 next decade, key populations stabilised and/or showed signs of recovery, so much so that by 1997, at the tenth CITES Conference of Parties (CoP10) in Harare, members voted to downlist elephants in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe to Appendix. II, subject to stringent safeguards, including prohibiting regular international ivory trade for commercial purposes. As a result of the ban's success, the convention agreed to an "experimental" one-off sale of 49 metric tons of ivory from government stockpiles in Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.
700 elephant tusks seized in Malaysia in 2011. (Credit: Star Publications M Berhad)
In 1999, CITES downlisted South Africa’s elephants to appendix. II, 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 Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) later described the move as a "lethal experiment," as the sale perpetuated the demand for ivory and led to the emergence of new consumer markets, including China.
The sale had devastating consequences. An influx of ivory into Chinese markets reinvigorated the government's approved ivory carving industry, which had been waning since the 1989 trade ban. Elephant poaching across Africa escalated 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 stockpiled 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 stockpiles in a sale that 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). For the second time in CITES history, African elephants faced a crisis as ivory demand soared.
Confiscated ivory is displayed at a chemical waste treatment center in Hong Kong, 2014. Chinese officials used state trips and other high-level visits to smuggle ivory out of Tanzania. (Credit: Kin Cheung, Associated Press)
Today, Africa’s elephant population stands at around 415,000. In addition to habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and civil unrest, indiscriminate poaching has had the most detrimental effect on elephant populations, and around 80% of all raw ivory traded comes from elephants that have been poached.
Proponents of a legalised trade in rhino horn use comparisons between the 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 of the increase in poaching of both species, claiming that before bans were implemented and legalised trade was permitted, markets were controlled, and species were protected. The CITES legalized sales combined with increased wealth in East Asia stimulated demand for ivory, reinvigorated China's government-funded ivory carving industry, and fuelled black-market enterprises.
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. The retail value of China’s carving industry was estimated to be worth around $2,000,000 annually between the mid 1960’s and 1980’s. In 2010, one kilogram of raw ivory was worth approximately $750. By 2014, prices had tripled to $2100. Ivory is now primarily sourced from African elephants.
CITES wasted considerable time implementing trade prohibitions. Thousands of elephants needlessly perished every year for almost a decade. As a result of CITES enforcement, public awareness campaigns, changing consumer tastes, and international bans, elephant populations in countries with adequate funding for protection have been able to recover.
Historically, motivations for purchasing ivory include economic, cultural, aesthetics and religion. Today, ivory carvings, especially high-end ivory carvings, are viewed as status symbols and symbols of wealth as they are associated with monetary wealth.
Advocates of a legalised trade of rhino horn claim the international ban on 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 stockpiles 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. Law enforcement seizures are also not necessarily recently harvested specimens but may be ones that have circulated for months or even years before they are seized by officials.
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.
The estimate of rhino horn needed to sustain the current market is based solely on the estimated weight of horns poached from live animals. No consideration is taken of 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 cannot afford rhino horn or those who desire rhino horn products but will not purchase illegally). With any business comes the desire to maximize profit and increase demand, which inevitably leads to marketing aimed at stimulating demand to increase sales.