By Catherine Doyle, Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS)
Amboseli National Park, Kenya
(photo by Harvey Croze, Amboseli Trust For Elephants)
For more than 10,000 years humans have coveted ivory - and mercilessly
slaughtered elephants to obtain it. It's often called "white gold," as well
as "blood ivory," and it's smuggled through the illicit wildlife trade in
myriad ways: camouflaged in chocolate, buried in a shipment of peanuts, and
carefully packed into containers of wood products. The ivory from an
elephant tusk can sell for $1,000 a pound.
Despite a ban on the international trade in ivory, enacted in 1989, the
destruction of elephants for their tusks has exploded in African wildlife
parks. Unless urgent action is taken to end the slaughter, conservationists
are predicting that we may be witnessing the end of elephants in our
lifetime. The Christian Science Monitor reports that in 2012, a shocking
30,000 elephants in Africa were slaughtered for their ivory, 7.4 percent of
the entire population. Experts estimate that 25,000 to 40,000 elephants are
being killed annually across the continent, and noted conservationists warn
that elephants could disappear in about a decade.
In 1979, 1.2 million elephants roamed Africa. Today, Africa has an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 elephants - representing as much as a 75 percent loss since 1979.
A container full of tusks destined to Malaysia was seized at the port of Mombasa in July 2013. A Kenya Wildlife Service officer numbers those tusks
(photo Getty Images)
A container full of tusks destined to Malaysia was seized at the port of
Mombasa in July 2013. A Kenya Wildlife Service officer numbers those tusks.
(photo Getty Images)
Several countries are implicated in the ivory trade. Most notable is
China, where a rising middle class can now afford to purchase ivory carvings
and trinkets as luxury and status items. National Geographic reported that
an estimated 80 percent of upper- and middle-class families in China have
admitted to buying ivory, and 84 percent planned to buy it in the future.
However, education about the deadly consequences of the ivory trade is
crucial. A survey in China found that almost 70 percent of the public
thought ivory did not involve the death of an elephant but that elephants'
tusks fell out naturally, like teeth. Fortunately, non-profit organizations,
celebrities, and leading conservationists, such as Dr. Joyce Poole of
ElephantVoices, are reaching out to people in China to educate them about
the devastation that lies behind their ivory purchases.
Countries implicated in the burgeoning illegal ivory trade include Kenya,
Uganda, and Tanzania; transit countries Malaysia, Vietnam, and the
Phillippines (ivory is shipped through these countries); and destination
countries Thailand and China. The Convention on Trade in Endangered Species
of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) - an international agreement between
governments with the aim of ensuring that international trade does not
threaten the survival of wild animals and plants - has mandated that these
countries (called the "Gang of Eight") implement a time-bound action plan at
reducing the illegal trade in ivory. They must report back to CITES on their
progress or face possible trade restrictions.
As recently as 2008, the U.S. was cited as one of the world's largest
markets for illegal ivory, even though African elephants were listed as
"threatened" under the Endangered Species Act in 1978. Much of the ivory
caught at the border was brought in by consumers and travelers in possession
of small amounts of ivory, though there have major law enforcement actions
involving large commercial quantities. While some ivory can be legally sold
within the U.S., activists are calling on the U.S. government to end the
internal trade of all ivory.
The Internet continues to be implicated in ivory sales throughout the
world, though responsible companies, such as eBay, have voluntarily banned
ivory sales. Google and Amazon also have policies against the sale of
products from endangered and threatened species, but may not be enforcing
them, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency and Humane Society
The U.S. has been stepping up to help fight illegal wildlife trafficking
and the ivory trade. In July, President Obama signed an Executive Order that
enhances domestic efforts to combat wildlife trafficking and assists foreign
nations in building capacity to combat wildlife trafficking. And Hillary
Rodham Clinton has taken up the elephants' cause, pledging to use her
political connections as America's former secretary of state to enlist other
world leaders in the fight against the illegal ivory trade.
The ivory trade has serious ramifications for elephants, beyond the
surging death count. In a must-read report, Africa Geographic states that
the loss of senior elephants in families has far reaching effects for the
remaining elephants. Cynthia Moss, director of the Amboseli Trust for
Elephants, and of the longest-running scientific study of elephants in the
world, explains: "Elephant survival is not simply a question of absolute
numbers, but of access to the social and ecological knowledge that older
elephants hold... Our research in Amboseli has shown that old, experienced
matriarchs increase the reproductive success of every female in their
family, so that there are shorter inter-birth intervals and each calf has a
higher chance of survival. Experienced matriarchs do this by making good
choices about where to go, what to eat, how to avoid danger. Removing that
knowledge leaves a family vulnerable, apart from the psychological damage of
surviving a run-in with poachers."
Poaching also takes a toll on humans. It seriously threatens the economies of African countries that depend on tourism; elephants are especially popular for tourists on safaris. More and more, there are calls to treat the ivory trade as seriously as drug smuggling and terrorism. Wildlife trafficking has been found to have ties to insurgent groups, terrorism and drug cartels, undermining global security.
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