The Effects of the Illegal Ivory Trade on African Elephant Populations 

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Recently conservationist came across a disturbing discovery, at Botswana wildlife sanctuary the bodies of 87 elephants were found. Many of which possessed injuries indicating they were killed for their tusks (Bale, 2018). Scientist estimate that roughly 30,000 African elephants are killed each year for their tusks (Bale, 2018). With less than 500,000 African elephants left on the planet, we are driving them towards extinction. With stronger legal enforcement, better international cooperation, and technological support we can put an end to the illegal ivory trade between Asia and Africa and stop elephant poaching. With sustainable management, ivory can provide continuous cultural and economic value, help alleviate poverty and contribute to human and environmental health. (“Sustainable Wildlife Management,” n.d.)


Both African and Asian elephants produce ivory however, African ivory is favored over Asian’s because their tusk are viewed as higher quality. The tusk is larger, less brittle and less prone to yellowing. (Harris, 2014) For African elephants both the male and female members of the species grow tusk, but only male Asian elephants have the ability to grow tusk. Although biology has helped spare the Asian elephants from ivory poaching, they remain 10 times more endangered that their cousins in Africa. This is largely due to the rise of skin poaching in Asian countries. (Hausheer, Smith, Miller, & Williams, 2018) Such increase in poaching is largely attributed to China’s increasing size, wealth, consumption, and traditional medicines.

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African elephants are listed as a threatened species. Due to overhunting during the 18th and 19th centuries, elephant populations have been depleted in South Africa. (Hall-Martin, 1992) However, controlled hunting, decreases in ivory prices, and the development of wildlife preserves helped to restore populations within Africa. (“International Elephant Foundation, n.d.) In the 70s ivory increased in price and the poaching of elephants was reignited. The population dropped by more than half by 1995. (“International Elephant Foundation, n.d.)

In 1989, the African elephant was listed as endangered Appendix 1 by the Convention of Internatioal Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). CITES placed an international trade ban on elephants and their products. (“International Elephant Foundation, n.d.) In 1997, African elephants were decreased to Appendix 2 due to rebounding populations in some South African countries. “Appendix II classifies these populations as threatened and allows some limited trade in elephant products with certain restrictions, quotas, and permits.” (“International Elephant Foundation, n.d.)

Initially, ivory was given as gifts to Portuguese explorers and had no economic value (Ross, 2005) Ivory didn’t begin to gain its economic potential until the 1980s when it began to be used as an artistic element. In 2006 China registered ivory carving as a “national intangible cultural heritage.” (“Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Slaughter for Ivory,” 2017) Ivory is especially prized in China where it is valued for its material worth and believed magical powers. Approximately 70% of all ivory is imported to China. (“Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Slaughter for Ivory,” 2017) The market for ivory has been insatiable due to its growing affluence.

In 2008 China successfully lobbied CITES to authorize a one-time sale of ivory stock. “As part of this agreement, 62 tons of ivory was sold to China from African stockpiles.” (Linder, 2016) This soon became problematic due to the corruption within the organization and the legal and illegal ivory became indistinguishable. This allowed an illegal market to coexist with the legal one. (Linder, 2016) In recent years, the Chinese government has tried to rein in its ivory consumption. China announced its plan to end its ivory trade by 2017 with the hope it will make it harder for traffickers to sell ivory. ‘Ending the largest ivory market in the world will hopefully decrease demand’ (Ferrara, Romain, Barone & Free, 2017).

Authorities in Myanmar destroyed an estimated $1.3 million dollars’ worth of confiscated ivory and other parts of endangered animals. The items consisted of 277 pieces of ivory, 277 bones of elephants and other animals, 1,544 different animal’s horns, and 25 skins. The parts were destroyed to raise awareness of the illegal wildlife trade (GreenWire, 2018). Although these efforts are important, conservationists are worried that these temporary bans and loopholes in regulations will incentivize stockpiling and laundering of illegal ivory. (Carter, 2016)

Environmental Impact

Elephants are considered keystone species and they play a vital role in ecosystem functioning and ensuring the survival of many other species. (Scholes & Mennell, 2009) Elephants use their tusk to dig for water during the dry season. This also provides water for other organisms. (Save The Elephants, n.d.) Elephants are also defender and may exclude species form using resources like watering holes by chasing them away. (Scholes & Mennell, 2009)

As elephants eat, they create paths in the vegetation that allow small organism to use and new plant to grow. They also contribute greatly in pollination of trees through seed dispersal. These fallen seeds also provide a food source for other organisms. (Save The Elephants, n.d.) Elephants are also known to disperse seeds at distances over 57km where other animals are known to disperses seed a few hundred meters. (Greentumble, 2016) Elephants waste are also full of seeds. “ When the waste is deposited the seed are sown and grown into new grasses, bushes, and trees, boosting the health of the ecosystem.” (Save The Elephants, n.d.) The dung also provides a habitat to some species like beetles, termites, centipedes, and spiders. The nutrient waste also constitutes a food source for other species like mongooses and ground hornbills. (Greentumble, 2016)

Lastly, elephant’s feet also play an important ecological role. Their footprints fill with water creating microhabitats for numerous micro invertebrate species. (Platt, 2016) There pools can also serve as breeding sites for mosquitoes and other organisms. Elephant biodiversity is very important in maintaining a stable ecosystem. The loss of this population can lead to changes in the ecosystem and ultimately result in its destruction which will have very serious local and global impacts.

Social Impacts

Values associated with elephants and ivory vary widely. In many cultures elephants are honored as a god and a symbol of strength, power, intelligence, and peace. Elephants appear in jewelry and are used to ward off evil spirits or magic. African fables see elephants as wise leaders that settle debates among other forest animals. (Nikela, 2015) Also, the religion Hinduism holds sacred symbolism for elephants, Lord Ganesh is responsible for good fortune and success. The elephant is also idolized for its strength and is often seen as a guardian of temples in Buddhism. Elephants as a whole have a large presence in culture and religion.

“The elephant’s mythical role as protector and bringer of good fortune has led many to believe that wearing ivory amulets or jewelry will give the wearer these traits.” (Carter, 2015) Elephant ivory has numerous uses, its luster and receptivity to engravings have also caused ivory to gain stature as a luxury good. “Artistic ivory carvings exist from as far back as the sixth millennium BCE” (Rosen, 2012) and have grown to be of like equivalence with diamonds and gold (Ross, 2005). Consumers of ivory may attach status significance to owning a rare piece. The biggest problem with the value of ivory being so high is many consumers are unaware of how it is obtained. This has led to the misconception that ivory can be harvested without killing the elephant.

In addition to this, park rangers are constantly putting their lives at risk to protect elephants from poachers (The Impact of Elephant Poaching is Greater Than We Think, 2015). “The new generation of poachers often uses military equipment like machine guns, rocket launchers, and helicopters, which enable them to slaughter animals at will, this puts wildlife officials in mortal danger, with at least 1,000 park rangers killed in 35 countries over the last decade.” (Alie, 2013). Many rangers lack proper training and equipment and when something goes wrong there’s often little support for their families. Rangers are often times exposed to horrific scenes, every carcass found serves as another reminder of their failed efforts. (Neme, 2014) Ivory poaching has not only hindered elephant lives but has cost many humans their lives as well.

Elephants matter not only because of their ecological importance, but their aesthetic beauty, power serve as a symbol of stability and security. If we lose elephants, we are also losing a national treasure. When looking at this from an ethical perspective, many feel it is their duty to protect biodiversity. “Some argue that species themselves have their own value and right to exist whether humans need them or not.” (Boerman, 2014)

Economic Impact

When looked at from a non-consumptive perspective, a single elephant alive has an intrinsic value of $1.6 million over its lifetime. An analysis estimated that from the total weight of confiscated tusk that 1,940 elephants were killed. The slaughter of these 1,940 elephants could have contributed $44.5 million to Africa’s economy (Platt, 2014). Currently the majority of revenue from the trade of ivory benefit criminals, gangs, corrupt military officials, and terrorist groups. The price of an elephant for these individuals is much greater dead than alive. However, when compared to the income levels in these poverty-stricken areas, the price of ivory seems to be a significant amount (Herrington, 2012).

In the tourism industry elephants are important attractions, from a tourism perspective elephants provide indirect income to communities through employment, ownership, and business. (Scholes, 2009) For poverty stricken people in Africa, money from selling tusk can be hard to resist. A single elephant tusk can sell for 10 times the amount that many Africans earn in a whole year. (Rosen, 2012)

Prices for elephant ivory are also skyrocketing because of the growing demand, particularly in China. Ivory can fetch as much as $1,000 per pound in Beijing, China’s capital (Gao & Clark, 2017). Vietnam, Philippines, China, and Thailand are the world’s leading importers of ivory. (Strauss, 2015) “Consumer demand for ivory began rising in the early 2000s and peaked around 2011, causing major declines in elephant populations all across Africa.” (Mushegian, 2017) Consumers of ivory mostly consist of wealthy, elite, tourist, and government officials in which they often purchase large extravagant pieces sometimes consisting of entire tusks. (Carter, 2015) So what is being done to curb this hunger for ivory?


Wildlife groups are urging China and other Asian nations to get tougher about enforcing laws against the illegal ivory trade. They’re also pushing for African governments to punish poachers and smugglers more severely. In 2013, countries representatives met in Botswana to agree upon measures to combat the illegal ivory trade. The summit included leaders from Gabon, Kenya, Niger, Zambia, Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Thailand, and the Philippines. (‘Urgent Measures’, 2013) “Signatories agreed to classify wildlife trafficking as a “serious crime,” increase punitive sentences, and provide each other legal assistance in prosecuting wildlife criminals. However, the IUCN does not have an enforcement mechanism thus the terms of this agreement are nonbinding.” (Linder, 2016)

In 2014, representatives from 46 nations met in London to agree upon new commitments to help combat global wildlife trafficking. Each nation signed a pledge to renounce products made from threatened species. (Linder, 2016) However, there is concern that these diplomatic measure may not have the impact desired because there is no binding enforcement mechanism. (‘A Landmark International Agreement to Halt Wildlife Trafficking is Just the Beginning,’ 2014).

In 2016, the Obama Administration placed a “near total ban” on all products containing African elephant ivory. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) “While the regulations do not restrict personal possession of ivory, they prohibit sale and trade of African ivory with only a few exceptions. Preexisting manufactured items containing fewer than 200 grams of ivory are exempt from the law, as are artifacts over 100 years old when presented along with verification.” (Linder, 2016) (Fears, 2016) This trade ban made it so ivory could only be obtained through poaching. (Stiles, 2014) Traffickers take advantage of the legal trade of ivory to sale their illegal products and pass them off to buyers as legitimate legal products. (Strauss, 2015)

Other approaches that are beginning to be implemented include the production and sale of synthetic ivory. However, many believe that this will not reduce the demand for ivory, it may even help to stimulate it. These look-alike products may also provide a cover for illegal trade. Raising awareness of elephant conservation efforts have also increased. This aims to inform consumers about the true cost of ivory consumption, in hopes that it will decrease demand. Lastly, recent research has shown that poaching pressures have led to a favor in the genetic variability of the elephant’s without tusk. The ratio of tuskless elephants is increasing as poaching continues. Ultimately, nature is working to fix our problems for us.

Overall, an indefinite trade ban is not the right approach to put an end to elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade and many of the other approaches pose their own limitations. Instead, officials should propose a legal supply of ivory from elephants that die of natural mortality. (Walker, 2014) This allows for an increase in the economic value of ivory because it will be seen as rarer with a reduced supply. This approach can also help to raise awareness of conservation efforts. Lastly, a controlled supply of ethically obtained ivory allows the cultural, religious, and artistic value of ivory to be preserved.


If the ivory trade continues at the rate it is currently going, elephants will soon face extinction. We must protect populations of African elephants in order to maintain biodiversity, for the ecosystem functions they perform and also for the moral obligations we hold as humans to protect and sustain life other than our own. Demeaning ivory by destroying national ivory stockpiles, destroying artistic works of ivory in public collections, and shutting down legal ivory sales does not help reduce poaching, it may ultimately lead to increases in ivory poaching. (Walker, 2014) The end to the illegal ivory trade and elephant poaching is completely dependent upon international cooperation and effective enforcement. The best method for ending elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade between Asian and Africa would be to allow a legal market of ivory from elephants that have died naturally. Only then would we be able to satisfy our needs and desires without costing the lives of elephants and harming the environment.

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The Effects of the Illegal Ivory Trade on African Elephant Populations . (2021, Aug 23). Retrieved from

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