A Global Challenge in Protecting Elephant Populations

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According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ivory is the ‘hard creamy-white modified dentine that composes the tusks of a tusked mammal’ (‘Ivory’). Yet, elephant ivory also has many other meanings to different groups of individuals. For example, to some people in Africa ivory may signify ‘livelihood’, to some individuals in China it may relate to ‘tradition’, and to millions of African elephants, it meant ‘death’. The global trade of African elephant ivory can be traced all the way back to 14th century BCE (Larson), and since then it has been transforming the lives of people, animals, and entire ecosystems.

Today, the commodity is intertwined with the strong forces of globalization, as the African elephant ivory trade is fueled by globalization’s forces and is critiqued by a global discussion of its effects. Elephant ivory provides an income for African hunters, traders, and militias who sell it to Chinese consumers for cultural value, yet the trade’s ecological and social effects are fiercely criticized.

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Therefore, the commodity of ivory and its trade between Africa and China exemplifies the contingency between social difference and environmental change. This can be seen through exploring the ivory trade through its production, distribution, and consumption, the key actors involved in the trade of ivory, and the commodity’s role within the larger process of globalization, specifically the globalization theory of accumulation and dispossession.

By analyzing the ivory trade through these lenses and processes, the broader relationship of the social and environmental aspects of globalization can be seen.

In order to identify and explore the connection between the ivory trade and the contingency between social difference and environmental change, it is important to identify the origins of the trade. A National Geographic film called The History of the Ivory states that an estimated 26 million elephants roamed Africa in 1800. Yet, due to the ivory trade in Asia, the number fell to 1 million by the end of the 20th century.

The African elephant ivory trade was officially banned in 1990, yet the film emphasizes that illegal ivory trade is still a big problem today (Larson). Furthermore, the article Detailed Discussion of Elephants and the Ivory Trade written by Ann Linder, a Harvard legislative policy fellow specializing in animal poaching, discusses the elephant ivory trade process in more detail. She states that African ivory is preferred due to large African elephant tusks and notes that as much as 70% of it is distributed to Chinese consumers. In China, ivory is a status symbol for the nation’s emerging middle class, and it is used to make statues, ornaments, and jewelry.

Linder also focuses on the African side of the trade, stating that poverty is a driving force behind the poaching, as few other economic opportunities exist in areas with large elephant populations (Linder). Overall, Larson and Linder establish the history and current state of the producers and consumers of African ivory. Furthermore, the articles by Yang Yu et al., Jane Davison, and Mike Graves discuss the China’s role as a consumer in the elephant ivory trade. In the article Significant and Timely Ivory Trade Restrictions in Both China and the United States are Critical to Save Elephants, Yang Yu and his coauthors state that China’s Ministry of Culture named ivory carvings “intangible cultural heritage” in 2006 (Yang Yu et al.) The authors talk about how China views ivory as being significant to its culture, increasing its demand.

Why elephant poaching is still rampant, Jane Davison states that many people in China believe that tusks naturally fall out of elephants and do not know how many elephants are killed. She talks about how the Chinese middle class now has more expendable time and money, which they can afford to spend on small trinkets made of ivory (Davison). This report demonstrates how a lack of knowledge about the trade among Chinese consumers is fueling demand. Lastly, in Customary Ivory Law Inefficient Problem Solving with Customary International Law, Mike Graves discusses how China relates to international legislation concerning the trade.

He states that The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna gives African elephants the highest level of protection that endangered species can receive, yet China’s remaining prominent role as its consumer indicates that the nation does not seem to consider itself bound by international protection law (Graves).

These sources string together the idea that while the trade of ivory is not being internationally ignored, China’s cultural attachment to the commodity refutes globalized action to protect African elephants. Focusing on the production side of the ivory trade, author Bryan Christie talks about how ivory consumption in Asia impacts African people and animals. In his article How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa, Christie describes his findings after working together with a team of people who designed fake elephant tusks with implanted location chips to track the ivory trade.

Christie states that local poor villagers and park rangers kill elephants to make a living and that the penalties for doing so are negligible. He notes that the ivory trade also funds terrorist and militia groups with the money they earn from trading retrieved tusks, and that ‘ivory operates as a savings account for Kony’, the leader of a Ugandan militia (Christie). Through these observations, Christie establishes the notion that the ivory trade has many negative effects on its production site of Africa, fueling violent regimes and harming the environment. Consequently, due to these visibly negative effects, authors Elizabeth Bennett, and Liza Gross connect the elephant ivory trade with globalization.

They explain how while globalization helps fuels the ivory trade, it also generates solutions to help put an end to the trade. In her article Legal Ivory Trade in a Corrupt World and its Impact on African Elephant Populations, Elizabeth Bennett, a professor of international affairs, talks about how globalization is linking people with the spread of ideas across geographic borders, which contributes to more sophisticated ivory trade routes and networks. Yet, Bennett also states that effective international and globalized management of legal ivory trade could reduce the trade’s harmful effects. She discusses how legal ivory should be allowed if it’s entrance into the market is controlled and monitored (Bennett). Another alternative solution linked to globalization is offered by Liza Gross, a senior editor at the journal PLOS Biology, in her article In the Shadows of the Congo Basin Forest, Elephants Fall to the Illegal Ivory Trade.

Gross maintains the view that ivory trade should remain illegal due to its endangerment of African elephants, which are a keystone species to many African ecosystems. Gross states that people must become educated about the effects of the trade, which could be achieved through cross-border globalized spread of knowledge. She also states that there should be more protected areas for elephants that could be managed by international organizations (Gross). Ultimately, these two views on the role of globalization in the creation and management of the ivory trade provide an interesting view into how the commodity is increasingly fueling international debate.

Bearing the analyses of these eight authors in mind, the data and arguments surrounding the topic of the African elephant ivory trade between Africa and China point toward the idea that the globalized commodity exemplifies the contingency between social difference and environmental change. This can be examined through the production, distribution, and consumption of the ivory trade, the leading actors involved in the trade, and ivory’s larger role within the globalization process, particularly through the theory of accumulation and dispossession. These components of the ivory trade showcase how it relates to the social difference and environment modules, establishing their strong ties.

While the main production of ivory occurs in Africa, the main consumers are in Asia, specifically China, due to the country’s cultural ties to products that are made from ivory. The way that ivory is produced and distributed has largely negative effects on Africa, as it is sourced by killing mass amounts of endangered elephants who are often hunted by violent militia groups who gain a profit from its trade (Christie). On the other hand, Chinese consumers largely gain the benefits from the trade, as the Chinese middle class purchases ivory products as a part of their social customs and traditions (Davison). This contrasting dynamic points to how the environmental change of elephant depletion is occurring in Africa due to the social norms of consumers in China. The production cycle of the African elephant ivory shows how without the cultural or social demand for ivory in China, Africa’s environment might not be as damaged and depleted of a keystone species.

The leading actors involved in the ivory trade showcase the contingency between social difference and environmental change as well, as the social and cultural environments of African poachers and traders and Chinese consumers are the drivers behind their involvement in the trade. According to a lecture on social difference by Donald Planey, people tend to strongly identify by nation without even meeting or living by most of the people in their nation. Therefore, national perceptions of what is culturally important are spread across a country and unite people towards common ideas of what are important practices. In China, many citizens may not know the reality of the effects of the ivory trade, yet the community that they live it may find having artifacts made from ivory a sign of high social status. On the other hand, social structures in Africa leave some people in poverty, where they must hurt their environment and retrieve ivory for money.

Ivory is also used to further certain social movements and leaders in Africa, such as Joseph Kony, who uses elephant ivory to fund his Ugandan militia to spread his view of what society should be like (Christie). Overall, the leading actors of Chinese consumers and African poachers and traders link social difference and environmental change through the way in which they contribute to environmental change for social reasons. Overall, the trade of elephant ivory is connected to larger globalization forces. Looking at globalization’s relation to this commodity through the globalization theory of accumulation by dispossession, the contingency between social different and environmental becomes apparent.

As discussed by Donald Planey in lecture, accumulation by dispossession is a globalization theory that describes the way in which profits can be accumulated through taking value away from other things, such as exploiting labor, claiming lands, or profiting from nature. In the case of the trade of elephant ivory, African ecosystems maintained by elephants are destroyed to give ivory hunters or traders profits.

This relates to the second contradiction of capitalism that Donald Planey discussed in lecture, which states that capitalism extracts more and more resources, depleting what it feeds, and creates scarcity despite its own expansion. As profit is accumulated among people who hunt or trade the ivory, elephants and ecosystems are dispossessed and depleted while capital grows. This shows the connection between the social difference that fuels the trade and its effects on the environment and indicates that the trade is not isolated within local communities but is driven and supported by larger globalization forces and theories.


In closing, the trade of African elephant ivory, fueled by the forces of globalization, exemplifies the contingency between social difference and environmental change. The production, distribution, and consumption of the commodity, facilitated by the key actors of African poachers and traders and Chinese consumers, points to how the trade contrastingly affects the two regions.

While the ivory trade contributes to the degradation of African ecosystems, it provides China with products of cultural value. Looking at the trade through the lens of globalization and its theory of accumulation and dispossession, the ivory trade provides capital to certain groups and individuals who seek it for social needs through exploiting nature. Yet, while globalization is currently a force behind the ivory trade, it can hopefully transition into becoming the force that ends its destruction through the global spread of knowledge of its effects.

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A Global Challenge in Protecting Elephant Populations. (2023, Feb 21). Retrieved from


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