The ivory trade has been an international problem for decades. While ivory is an important commodity to many of the countries in Africa, the use of this material is threatening the survival of the African elephant. While trade laws and sanctions have been passed by the global community to limit the use of ivory, a number of African countries continue to be active in this trade. By failing to understand the ivory trade and the economic position of many of the African countries, humans have directly contributed to the near extinction of both elephants and rhinoceros.
Ivory has been used to create culturally significant items for centuries. Ancient Egypt, Europe and the Far East all delighted in ivory because of the beauty of this material. The characteristics of ivory that allow for it to be carved with intricate detail also led to this material becoming entrenched in the culture and religious practices of these regions (Walker). These items range from jewelry to the carvings of religious figures such as Buddha. The possession of anything made from ivory is considered to be a status symbol as only the wealthy can afford to purchase these objects. The restriction of ivory worked to increase the demand for these items as they became increasingly rarer and hard to find (Viegas).
While elephants are present in many of the African countries, there are only a few that are markedly active in the illegal ivory trade. As of November 2013, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Uganda were the sources for the largest scale seizures of ivory (CITES Secretariat et al). It is likely that some poaching is occurring in other countries but these nine are responsible for the most notable trade in illegal ivory. The economic status of these countries and social unrest or instability is prevalent in many of these countries and is believed to be an underlying cause for the failure of some of the laws that have been created by the global community.
The illegal ivory trade has been a threat to elephants and rhinoceros since well before 1989. These animals have been killed for their ivory dating back to the ancient Egyptians but, in recent times, the combination of illegal poaching, and habitat loss have led to a significant decline in their populations (“New Report Warns of Uncertain Future for African Elephants”). If the poaching trends that were visible in 2013 continue, the death rate for elephants will exceed their natural population growth. This means that the population would quickly approach extinction (CITES et al). The same is true for rhinoceros, some subspecies of which have already gone extinct in the wild. As the global community came to accept the threat that the ivory trade posed for these animals, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was able to establish a ban on the international trade of ivory in 1989 (Clarke). After the establishment of this ban the populations of elephants and rhinoceros began to recover. Unfortunately, this recovery was short lived. Poaching resumed a few years after the ban and the populations fell once again (Walker).
Since the establishment of this ban, CITES has worked to monitor the elephant populations and the status of the poaching trade. This is accomplished through two monitoring groups, Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), that is managed by CITES, and Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), managed by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. The information that was gathered by these agencies in 2013 suggested that poverty and weak governments in the areas inhabited by the elephants and the demand for illegal ivory have resulted in the growth of the poaching trade and the continued decline of the elephant populations in many of their native regions (CITES). Many of the regions that continue to have high levels of poaching and ivory trade are predominantly rural and impoverished. When ivory was banned, it became increasingly valuable on the black market in countries such as China which has a largely unchecked black market trade in illegal ivory. Because of this, people in these impoverished countries were presented with the opportunity to make a large amount of money by poaching. This relationship demonstrates the need to remove demand for the ivory in order to stop the poaching but, since the ivory has cultural significance in many of the countries that import it illegally, it is unlikely that the demand for ivory can be removed (Walker).
In recent years, the poaching has become militarized. Instead of a few poorly armed individuals killing one or two elephants for their ivory, wildlife officials are now faced with militarized groups that have killed hundreds of animals at a time in mass slaughters (Viegas). Because of the growing threat posed by the poachers, there is now renewed debate over legalizing the trade in ivory. If the trade was legalized and controlled, it would have the potential to cripple the illegal market and thus decrease the poaching of the elephants. Legalizing the ivory trade would also make it possible for countries with elephants to sell ivory that is obtained when an animal dies of natural causes. Some believe that by allowing the countries with elephants to profit legally from their existence the local populations will be encouraged to protect them and discourage poaching. This could lead to a decrease in poaching as it is in the best interest of the country to ensure the survival of their elephant populations which will produce ivory so long as they are able to reproduce (Viegas).
Through the studies presented by CITES and the regional information available about many of the African countries it is apparent that human behavior and need is strongly responsible for the decline of the elephant species. While all of the population damage is not caused by poaching, this activity is responsible for a large percent of the downfall. Aside from this, human population growth in many of these regions has led to habitat destruction for the elephants and an increase in the poverty rate of the people. The combination of these two factors endanger the animals even more as they become the sole resource available for many families to survive. The desperation of the impoverished populations has allowed the formation of criminal organizations that revolve around poaching and the ivory trade. The development of these criminal groups has made it increasingly difficult for agencies to combat the illegal trade and protect the animal populations (“New Report Warns of Uncertain Future for African Elephants”).
It is simple to propose a ban on any given material, such as ivory, but it is much more difficult to remove the underlying need for that resource. The countries in Africa that contain many of the elephant populations exist in such an impoverished and corrupt state that it is almost impossible to enforce the bans or enact punishment for the criminals that are poaching and transporting the ivory. The only way to stabilize both the economies of these struggling countries and the populations of the animals within them is to allow the human population to benefit from the existence of the animals. In order to do this, a legal, but highly controlled, ivory trade would need to be allowed. Such a trade would remove the value of the illegal ivory that is obtained from poaching. At the same time, this legalization would encourage the local populations to take care of the animals that occupy their country and thus discourage poaching and the uncontrolled slaughter of these animals. The legal trade of ivory would also allow these countries to benefit financially from their natural resources and provide a more stable environment for their people. This would decrease the poverty level and reduce the number of individuals forced into criminal behavior and poaching.
CITES Secretariat, IUCN / SSC African Elephant Specialist Group, TRAFFIC International. “Status of African elephant populations and levels of illegal killing and the illegal trade in ivory: A report to the African Elephant Summit December 2013.” N.p. December 2013. Web. 12 Feb. 2016. <http://admin.writerbay.com/my_orders?subcom=detailed&id=231287853>.
Clarke, Ronald and Andrew Lemieux. “The International Ban on Ivory Sales and its Effects on Elephant Poaching in Africa.” The British Journal of Criminology 49.4 (2009): 451-471. Print.
“New Report Warns of Uncertain Future for African Elephants.” CITES. CITES, 6 Mar 2013. Web. 12 Feb. 2016. <https://cites.org/eng/news/pr/2013/20130306_ivory.php>.
Viegas, Jennifer. “Experts Ponder Legalizing Ivory Trade.” ABC Science. 5 Mar. 2012. Web. 12 Feb. 2016. <http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/03/05/3445685.htm>.
Walker, John. “Rethinking Ivory: Why Trade in Tusks Won’t Go Away.” World Policy Institute. World Policy Institute, Summer 2013. Web. 12 Feb. 2016. <http://www.worldpolicy.org/journal/summer2013/rethinking-ivory-why-trade-in-tusks-won't-go-away>.