Global Trade in Elephant Ivory Fuels Killing Spree

“Buying this piece is a good investment”, a sales woman unlocked a cabinet to take out a ball with multiple moving layers carved into it, sitting on a platform held by the heads of a dragon and a phoenix. “Ivory is like white gold!

Supply and demand: Allowing the sale of ivory on open markets may drive demand.

On a bitterly cold Saturday in January, I went to the antique and curio markets in Beijing looking for elephant ivory.

With the approaching of the Chinese New Year, the big shopping season much like Christmas in the west, the market was crowded.

It didn’t take me long to find a variety of products carved from elephant ivory. A pair of figurines and a Chinese chess set on the ground in the outdoor market; piles of bracelets, necklaces and cigarette holders in shops. Entire tusks elaborately carved with scenes portraying people in “harmony” with their environment, lined the windows in larger government certified stores.

“Buying this piece is a good investment”, a sales woman unlocked a cabinet to take out a ball with multiple moving layers carved into it, sitting on a platform held by the heads of a dragon and a phoenix. “Ivory is like white gold! If you had bought this last year, your investment would have gained you 40% in value now”.

Her words sent a chill down my spine. Looking at this creamy white “investment”, my mind’s eyes couldn’t help seeing it covered in red, stained with the blood of innocent elephants slaughtered thousands of miles away.

In April, poachers gunned down 30 elephants, an entire family, in Chad, and hacked off their tusks. In the same month, three large shipments of ivory were uncovered in Thailand, China and Vietnam. In total, 1076 tusks confiscated in these three law enforcement actions alone represented the lives of over 500 elephants.

The unrelenting demand in Asia is fueling another killing spree much like the one in the 1970s and 80s which wiped out more than half of the elephants in Africa. Yet, today the situation facing elephants is much more precarious.

The areas for elephants to roam free has shrunk as human population has grown. Technological advances have made it easier to track and kill elephants as well as smuggle and trade their ivory globally.

In their current issue, Vanity Fair ran a feature piece called “Agony and Ivory”. In it they say “the previous slaughter was driven by Japan’s economic boom. This new crisis is driven by China’s Bao Fa Hu (the “suddenly wealthy).”

The phenomenal economic growth in China has created a middle class with disposable income and ability to globe trot. Chinese travelers caught smuggling contraband ivory across international borders far outweigh any other nationality.

When all elephant populations were listed on CITES Appendix I and all international ivory trade was banned in 1989, ivory price plummeted.

When there was no monetary value attached with ivory, elephant poaching decreased and breeding stopped. However, the peace for elephants was short-lived. Just as elephant populations stabilized in many parts of Africa, Japan was allowed to import stockpiled ivory from Africa in 1997.

Since then, ivory price never came down again, skyrocketing to new highs each time CITES meet, in anticipation of ivory trade decisions. CITES indeed approved the 2nd “one-off sale” in as many decades, allowing Japan and China to acquire over 100 tons of ivory. Although the CITES decision was only to allow trade between a few southern African countries with two Asian countries, the message reverberating through the global market place was simple: “ivory trade is allowed”.

Biologically, elephants simply can not support an economic model of supply and demand. With the fast growing human population, economy and consumerism, no wildlife can sustain this type of commercial exploitation, let alone a long-living, slow growing, slow-breeding species like the elephant.

Mom, why aren't you happy I have teeth? Babies having teeth should be a joyous occasion for the mother. Yet, what does it mean for elephant families? Because of our unnecessary want of ivory, thousands of elephants are killed. If we don't buy, they don't die. Please say "NO" to elephant ivory.

The only way to stop the bloody onslaught is to break every link on the trade chain—from supply to trafficking to demand. In China, the largest ivory market in the world, our campaign to reduce demand have resulted in online shopping websites banning ivory trade and consumers pledging to reject ivory products.

Seeing the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s heart wrenching PSA “Mom, I’ve Got Teeth”, a former ivory carver wrote: “I used to carve ivory objects for sale. Your ad has enlightened me about the truth behind elephant ivory. From now on, I will never use ivory for carving again. Thank you!”

We can only hope that our continued efforts have the same effect on the remaining consumer markets.

-- GG

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
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Faye Cuevas, Esq.
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Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
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