Slaughtering Elephants for Trinkets

            It is likely that within the next 50 years, elephants will be extinct in the wild. In 1940, the world population of elephants living in the wilds of Asia and Africa was estimated to have been between 3 to 5 million.  Wild herds of elephants roamed across great portions of Asia and Africa. Estimates of the current global elephant population vary wildly.  On the low end, it is estimated that the total population of wild elephants is approximately 430 thousand.  Broken out geographically, conservationists estimate that there are less than 35 thousand wild elephants in Asia and anywhere from 400 to 690 thousand on the continent of Africa. Elephants in the wild face a variety of obstacles from humans, however, the easiest threat to resolve is killing of elephants to satisfy the demands of the illegal ivory trade.

            Ivory has been sought after for thousands of years and ivory trading has been conducted by the peoples of several different cultures. The cultures of those living in Greenland, Siberia, Africa, Asia and Europe all traded and valued ivory. Indeed, as a result of demand for ivory, it is believed that elephants in North Africa were hunted to extinction more than 1000 years ago.  In recent history, the Ivory trade exploded in the 19th century and the African elephant population was hunted to extinction in West Africa and much of Southern Africa.  Throughout the 1970s an estimated 75 thousand elephants were killed annually to satisfy the world’s ivory demand. In the 1980s the number of elephants that were killed every year is believed to have exceeded 100 thousand. As the elephant population dwindled, more and more conservationists demanded that the ivory trade be halted. Finally, in 1989, a worldwide ban on the sale and trade of ivory was implemented.  It should be noted that the ban applied only to the sale and trade of new ivory. Ivory that was already in existence was not affected. At that time, the world’s population of wild elephants was estimated to be approximately 1.5 million. 

            In the 22 years since the implementation of the ban, the wild elephant population has been cut by more than half. A successful publicity campaign has virtually destroyed the demand for ivory in Europe. However, as a result of increasing prosperity and virtually no effort by the government to enforce the international ban in countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, the Asian markets for ivory are increasing. This increased demand has led to more poaching in Africa.  In 2011, an estimated 25 thousand elephants were slaughtered.  That is the highest number killed since 2002. Climate change, human encroachment on their territory and the increasing demand for their ivory may result in the extinction of the wild elephant within the next 50 years. 

            Ivory has been a sought after material in China for centuries. Today, it is estimated that China accounts for 70% of the illegal ivory trade. The relatively recent economic prosperity of China has created the country’s largest middle class in history. Now, more Chinese citizens than ever can afford to buy ivory products. In 2012, the price for a pound of ivory in Beijing reached 1000 dollars a pound. Chinese websites are openly advertising ivory goods and items made from ivory have become a favored gift of high-ranking officers in the Chinese military. The Chinese demand for ivory has created international criminals out of many Chinese citizens. In 2011, there were more than 150 Chinese citizens arrested in Africa on charges of ivory smuggling. Based on a poll conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare an astonishing 70% of Chinese citizens did not know that ivory came from elephants.  Public awareness campaigns are important, however, without the help of the Chinese government the illegal trading will continue virtually unabated. 

            Some African countries can afford to protect their elephant populations.  Botswana has a wild elephant population of more than 100 thousand and compared to other countries, the herd in Botswana is relatively well protected. Due to the protection it was able to provide, South Africa’s wild elephant population has grown to nearly unsustainable levels. Other African countries simply do not have the financial resources to adequately protect their wild herds. It is the ultimate irony that while the demand for ivory originates primarily outside of Africa, the responsibility for protecting the last remaining elephant herds is left to the very countries that are being victimized.

            Asian countries have shown very little desire to curtail the illegal ivory trade. Without their help this crisis will run its natural course and result in the extinction of the earth’s largest mammal. Elephants are intelligent social animals with life spans of up to 70 years. Elephants have always had an uneasy relationship with man. Humans initially hunted elephants for their meat and only much, much later were they hunted for their ivory. Trinkets. The human love affair with trinkets may finally lead to the extinction of the elephant. 

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not sure if anyone else finds this subject interesting

sartoris's picture

I know that when one considers all the problems of the world this might not be very high on the list of things to address. However, I've always believed that we can do more than one thing at a time. I hate to think that these amazing creatures are headed for extinction for no good reason except that someone wants to have an ivory trinket.

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The extinction of the elephants

aigeanta's picture

will be a symptom of our species' ultimately fatal disease: selfishness to the point of ecocide. We have *got* to learn how to co-exist with the rest of the biosphere, not just because we might go extinct, but because it is *wrong* to condemn other species to death.

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ecocide, a horrible word but completely fitting

sartoris's picture

Thanks for reading.  This was a difficult article to research and write.  I left out a lot of the more disturbing parts because it was getting to me.  So much of the ivory is used to create religious icons, some of which are even sold at Vatican City.  How one can participate in the extinction of a species and using that animal's body to make religious icons is stunning.

Honestly, I had no idea the love that people have for ivory.  Elephants used to be found as far as Syria.  They were wiped out of Northern Africa within the last 1000 years as a result of the ivory trade.  They are amazing animals and their preventable extinction is a crime taking place in plain sight.

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Asian elephants are becoming very rare in the wild

traveler's picture

However former hunters of wild elephants in Southeast Asia, the Suoi people, also called Kui, now breed and raise them and train them for domestic purposes, some as working animals, others for show.

Each November in Surin, Thailand there is an elephant roundup in which about 300 local elephants participate. Locals line the streets with fruits and other edible favorites for the elephants to eat.

Here's a link to photos from some of the past elephant festivals.

Elephants are customarily hired for use in important local events such as novice monk initialtion ceremonies. I had the pleasure of riding on one of them in one of these ceremonies at my wife's home village a few years ago.

Up until a few years ago it was not unusual to see elephants on the streets of large cities in Southeast Asia such as Phnom Penh and Bangkok. It is still fairly common to see them walking in some smaller towns in the region.

Photo below: preparing elephants for novice monk initiation ceremony - Dec 2011

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I never have, but it's on my bucket list

sartoris's picture

Unfortunately, I have never seen one in the wild. Once my last kid is through college I'm going to take a month long trip through Africa. Well, at least that is my plan....... 

Thailand is quite the participant in the illegal ivory trade. Just a heartbreaking business. I think that elephants are as intelligent and social as whales.  

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I'm not familiar with the legal details

traveler's picture

but it is common to see some tamed elephants with the ends of their tusks cut off. One in the photo I posted is an example. I've seen a mix around these parts, some cut off but also some large old bulls with full tusks.

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Walking off the trail to eat

traveler's picture

is normal. They eat almost continuously. During the procession around the village area in the photo they were stopping to eat banana tree leaves, bamboo and other plants.

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Thanks, Traveler. Very much appreciated.

sartoris's picture

Thanks, Traveler. It's too late too tackle this tonight, but I will definitely read this document.  Did you see this new study?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21426817

It's uncanny how the lives of elephants mirror those of humans. Their social structure, the interaction between the male and females, the extended female generations involved in the raising of the young. It's amazing. The fact that we are killing them for trifling knick knacks just makes me beyond sad.

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