Elephants in Africa are being slaughtered on an unprecedented scale. In 2012, more than 35,000 of them—or close to 100 per day—were killed for their tusks. Things turned particularly ugly in 2013, when more than 300 fell victim to cyanide poisoning by poachers in Zimbabwe. If things continue at this rate, African elephants may be extinct in as few as 15 years.
Elephants are not the only casualties in this war. Hundreds of wildlife rangers have died while while working to protect the animals. Local governance, community stability and regional security are seriously threatened as well. Several African militia groups, such as Janjaweed in the Sudan, Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and Somalia-based Al-Shabaab, have engaged in elephant poaching and used profits from sale of the ivory to fund their terrorist activities.
Burgeoning market demand
Global demand for ivory products is fueling the elephant poaching crisis despite the international ban on commercial trade in ivory that was established in 1990. China is the largest market for ivory products, followed by the United States.
A 2008 report supported in part by The Humane Society of the U.S. found that an estimated one-third of ivory items for sale in the U.S. might have been imported illegally. In China, which has a government-approved ivory carving industry, an investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found widespread abuse and fraud in the government registration system set up to ensure that no illegal ivory enters the legal trade.
Some estimate that 90 percent of ivory sold in China is from smuggled tusks; legal markets have become a front for laundering illicit ivory obtained from poached elephants.
Decades of lax trade regulation, increased poaching
Until 1990, the legal international trade in African elephant ivory flourished. Ivory showed up as, among other things, carvings sold in Asia and jewelry sold in the United States and Europe.
Nations that are Parties to CITES tried and failed to regulate this trade. Between 1979 and 1989, the number of African elephants plummeted from approximately 1.2 million to about 600,000.
In 1989, CITES effectively banned the international commercial trade in African elephant ivory by placing the species on Appendix I. Once this ban went into effect in 1990, elephant populations in the wild stabilized somewhat.
At first, the ban worked. Demand for ivory in the United States dropped to a historic low, illegal trade was severely curbed and ivory carving factories in China and shops in Hong Kong closed down. A number of African governments reported that the ban had been a tremendous success.
However, CITES approved a one-off sale of 49.4 metric tons of stockpiled ivory from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to Japan in 1999. Soon after that, between January 2000 and June 2002, at least 2,563 tusks, 14,648 ivory objects or pieces and more than 6.2 metric tons of ivory were seized. During the same period, 1,059 or more African elephants were found dead, killed for their tusks.
In 2008, again with the approval of CITES, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe exported 102 metric tons of government stockpiled ivory to Japan and China. China received 62 tons of ivory and many Chinese called it the “resurrection” of the Chinese ivory carving art. It also marked the resurrection of African elephant massacres.
Looking to the future
To protect elephant populations, closure of domestic markets for ivory and an international trade ban without any exceptions are necessary. By allowing the international ivory trade to continue—through occasional sanctioned exports and by not recommending the closure of domestic markets for ivory (as CITES has done for tiger parts)—CITES has turned a blind eye to poaching and an illegal trade that threatens the survival of the species.
In November 2013, the United States government, in a highly publicized media event, destroyed its nearly six-ton stockpile of confiscated ivory. The destruction was intended to send the unequivocal message that illicit ivory has no value or place in the U.S., and to inspire other countries with large stockpiles to follow suit. In a great victory for elephants, China did exactly that a month later, and then Hong Kong.