Ivory has long been valued for its beauty and durability. In fact, for tens of thousands of years, humans have used ivory to craft everything from tools and piano keys to religious objects, art, and luxury items.
Tragically, in the span of only 100 years, the demand for ivory as a symbol of wealth and status, combined with the development of firearms that allowed poachers to more easily kill elephants, has decimated elephant populations. In fact, the African elephant population alone has declined by an estimated 84-96%. Although elephants were plentiful in the early 19th century, there are now estimated to be fewer than 500,000 elephants worldwide.
In 1989, an international ban was enacted on the sale of ivory. However, some countries still allow domestic ivory trade, subject to restrictions. Additionally, the continued demand for ivory in many countries, including the US, has created a booming black market trade. As a result, elephants are still poached, and ivory is still traded today. Here are 14 things you didn’t know about today’s ivory trade.
1. The Ivory Trade is Big Business
Globally, the ivory trade is estimated to be worth $23 billion per year. And given that ivory sells for approximately $3,300 per pound, poachers have plenty of motivation to continue killing elephants for their tusks.
Indeed, entire criminal networks exist to engage in the ivory trade. And in recent years, the amount of ivory seized by law enforcement has been on the rise. Some experts theorize that poachers are liquidating their stocks in response to global controls, while others believe the increased amount of ivory seized reflects increased poaching that may well lead to the extinction of elephants altogether.
2. Several Factors Contribute to Poaching
The demand for ivory is the biggest contributor to poaching, because without demand, ivory would have no value. However, other factors also contribute, particularly poverty and corruption in countries where elephants live.
Corruption and/or a lack of adequate law enforcement allows organized crime and terrorism to gain a foothold in some countries and fuels the ivory trade. Poverty is also a significant driver of poaching. In places where legitimate economic opportunities are scarce, some citizens turn to poaching in an attempt to generate income and provide for their families.
Additionally, human-elephant conflicts can spur poaching. When elephants become stressed and threatened by poachers, they may show aggression to citizens who then kill the elephants themselves.
3. Poachers Are Using Increasingly Cruel Methods
Killing elephants for their tusks is inherently cruel, but the fight to prevent poaching has led to poachers employing increasingly brutal methods to avoid detection. Although firearms are still used by some poachers, the sound of gunfire could alert rangers to their presence.
Instead, many poachers have turned to methods like arrows and spears with poisoned tips, that silently but slowly kill the elephants. And because these methods effectively incapacitate the elephants, poachers cut their tusks out while they are still alive. The elephants are then left to die a prolonged and excruciating death.
4. In Response to Poaching, Some Elephants Are Now Born Without Tusks
In some areas that have experienced high rates of poaching, elephants are increasingly born without tusks. This is especially apparent in Mozambique, where war led to 90% of the elephants in the Gorongosa National Park region being killed for their ivory.
Some female elephants carry genes that cause them to be born without tusks. Since tuskless elephants were more likely to survive, those genes were passed on at a higher rate than before the war. Today, 50% of female elephants in this region are born without tusks.
On the surface, this evolutionary adaptation may seem like a good thing when it comes to decreasing poaching. However, this mutation appears to be lethal in males. Within the populations affected by these changes, two-thirds of all offspring are now female, which has great implications for the survival of the species.
Furthermore, tuskless elephants have shifted their diet, mostly eating grass instead of legumes and woody plants. This change has far-reaching consequences for the entire ecosystem. As a keystone species, elephants play several important roles that other species depend on, including clearing paths, removing brush, and digging watering holes with their tusks. But when elephants lose their tusks and change their diet, they no longer fill these roles.
5. The COVID Pandemic May Have Increased Demand for Ivory
The price of ivory has recently been on the rise after previously declining. Although researchers are still trying to determine the reasons for the increase, some studies link higher prices to the COVID pandemic. The possible driving factors for this are twofold.
During the COVID pandemic, travel restrictions likely reduced the supply of available ivory. As a result, prices may have increased due to the disparity between supply and demand. Additionally, because ivory is valuable, some see it as a sound investment akin to purchasing gold. As such, there is evidence that ivory was sold at higher prices as an investment to provide financial stability during the global financial crisis.
Unfortunately, when the price of ivory increases, poachers have greater incentive to continue killing elephants and selling their tusks as a lucrative business.
6. Rangers Risk Their Lives to Protect Elephants
Poachers are ruthless. They not only brutally kill elephants for ivory; they are also willing to kill anyone who stands in their way. Between 2006 and 2021, over 1,500 rangers died protecting endangered species, including elephants. Tellingly, homicides were the most frequently reported cause of death.
The rangers who protect elephants from poachers risk their lives as they carry out their duties. They frequently face corruption in local governments and poachers who are insurgents or members of organized crime groups and militias. Additionally, rangers must contend with dangers from the natural environment, too, like wildfires, floods, and sometimes even attacks from the animals they work to protect.
7. Poachers Sometimes Make Ivory Look Older
Although an international ban on ivory trading was enacted in 1989, many countries still allowed ivory to be sold within their borders, particularly if the ivory was old. For example, although the European Union followed the CITES ban, it allowed domestic ivory trade if the ivory in question was acquired before 1947, or if it was imported from Africa before 1990 or from Asia before 1970. Many other countries have adopted similar regulations.
The goal of such restrictions is to allow the sale of existing ivory while discouraging poaching. However, in reality, poachers have successfully sold new ivory by disguising it to look older. In some cases, this has been achieved simply by staining the ivory with tea.
Surprisingly, even experts can be duped by such doctored ivory. For example, one study found that a whopping 68% of the ivory in their samples had been acquired after 1947. And experts wrongly identified the ivory’s age 86% of the time.
8. Code Names Are Used to Continue to Sell Ivory Online
Despite the sale of ivory being banned, sellers have found ways to illicitly advertise and sell it online through sites like eBay. One such method is by using code words to describe ivory. For example, items made of ivory are frequently labeled as “bovine bone.”
One study conducted by Dr. Caroline Cox and her colleagues at the University of Portsmouth found that of 632 items listed as bovine bone on eBay, over 500 were actually ivory. These results suggest that although online platforms prohibit the sale of ivory, sales freely continue with code words used to falsely label ivory as other legal materials.
9. Many Countries Have Stockpiles of Ivory
As part of the 1989 international ban on commercial ivory sales, governed by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), countries must maintain stockpiles of ivory. The intent behind this requirement is both to keep track of trade and to remove ivory from the market. However, this has resulted in vast caches of ivory that must be guarded against theft.
Some countries, like the United States, have crushed or burned their ivory stockpiles in order to permanently remove the ivory from the market and send a message denouncing its trade. However, studies have not conclusively determined whether this is a deterrent to the ivory trade, since media coverage of these efforts is typically lower in countries that have a high demand for ivory.
10. Some Countries Want to Sell Their Stockpiles
The requirement to store stockpiles of ivory has created a burden on some poorer countries. As a result, some countries like Zimbabwe and Namibia want to sell their stockpiles and use the money raised for conservation.
Today, they depend on tourism and hunting licenses for revenue, including licenses to hunt the elephants themselves. These countries argue that selling their ivory stockpiles would be a better way to get the money they need to protect elephants from poachers.
For example, Fulton Mangwanya, director-general of Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), reports that it costs $160,000 a year to manage Zimbabwe’s stockpile and says investments need to be made to fund current salaries, hire more rangers, and purchase adequate anti-poaching vehicles and gear. He believes that selling Zimbabwe’s stockpile could raise the revenue Zimbabwe needs, both for its conservation efforts and to provide payments to people who have been harmed by elephants.
11. Some Experts Fear Selling Stockpiles Could Increase Demand for Ivory
Because countries who manage elephant populations accumulate large stockpiles of ivory (including from elephants who die of natural causes), dealing with those stockpiles can create logistical and financial problems. In response, CITES allowed a one-time sale of ivory stocks from Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia in 2008.
However, in the years following that sale, seizures of smuggled ivory nearly doubled, and the number of elephants dying of unnatural causes also increased. Some experts believe this can be attributed to increased demand in Asia following the sale, and they fear demand will once again spike if stockpiled ivory is sold.
12. The European Union Has Curbed Domestic Ivory Trade
In December, 2021, the European Union adopted new regulations to curb its domestic ivory trade. Today, all raw ivory trade is banned in the EU, with the exception of ivory used to repair existing objects made from ancient ivory, such as musical instruments.
Additionally, in order for worked ivory to be eligible for legal sale, items must have been made before 1947 or, in the case of musical instruments, 1975. Further, the items must be certified by their country of origin.
13. China Has Taken Important Steps to Lower Demand for Ivory
Once the largest market for ivory, China took an important step in 2017 toward combating poaching by banning the domestic sale of ivory. This legislation, combined with successful public messaging campaigns, has helped reduce the demand for ivory in China. In fact, Chinese State media reported that within the first year of the ban, the price of raw ivory dropped by 65%.
WildAid is proud to have partnered with ambassadors like Yao Ming to help lower the demand for ivory in China. And we are happy to report that China has now closed all ivory carving factories and ivory shops. Additionally, 95% of the Chinese public now supports ending the ivory trade.
Recently, WildAid also partnered with actress Yang Zi on a messaging campaign urging Chinese travelers not to purchase ivory souvenirs. We are hopeful this campaign will help further reduce the demand for ivory in China.
14. Progress Continues to Be Made
While the ivory trade continues to threaten elephants’ survival, significant achievements have been made, particularly in the area of reducing demand. The combination of legislation and NGO campaigns has successfully lowered the demand for ivory in many countries that have historically been major destinations for poached ivory.
In addition to reduced demand following the recent legislation passed in China and the EU, there has been success in lowering demand for ivory in countries like Japan, which previously had large but passive markets. In the case of Japan, after the elimination of legally imported ivory, the country ceased to be a destination for new ivory.
We are hopeful that continued outreach campaigns and efforts to enact stricter legislation will further reduce global demand for ivory and allow elephant populations to rebound. As always, WildAid will be at the forefront of these efforts. Learn more about how WildAid is helping to decrease the demand for ivory here.
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WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to protect wildlife from illegal trade and other imminent threats. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages more than $308 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too.
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