The Destruction of Ivory Poaching and the Illegal Wildlife Trade: Part 1

Humanity’s true moral test, its fundamental test … consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.
— Milan Kundera

Illegal wildlife poaching is once again on the rise as reported trafficking and seizures of animal parts have increased dramatically over the past few years. The illegal trafficking of wildlife is now one of the world’s largest criminal industries, with repeated links to terrorism networks, posing an increased threat to national security and economic stability. Contributing to the extinction of hundreds of species, including tigers, bears, elephants, and rhinoceroses, criminal organizations and rebel militias profit from the illicit wildlife and plant trade that is estimated to be worth between USD $70 and 213 billion a year. It’s destructive of the natural resources of countries and to legally operating businesses and tourism around the world.

Approximately 30,000 African elephants are killed annually for their ivory tusks and sales are increasing in countries like Cambodia. In some African countries including Senegal, Somalia, and Sudan, elephants have already been driven to extinction. Elephants are a keystone species, meaning other animals, plants, and entire ecosystems rely on them for survival, and just like humans, elephants share the same emotions and cognitive behavior as they grieve for their lost loved ones, feel fear, joy, and empathy, and are highly praised for their memory and intelligence. Poachers use sub-machine guns, night vision goggles, and helicopters to slaughter up to 100 elephants each day and in the last 10 years approximately 1,000 rangers were killed protecting wildlife in the “war” against poachers.

Between 1979 and 1989, the worldwide demand for ivory caused elephant populations to decline dangerously, cutting Africa’s elephant population in half. Savannah elephants with their larger tusks were targeted first and as their numbers dwindled poachers began to move into the forests for smaller elephant breeds. In the early 1970s, demand for ivory rocketed and 80 percent of raw ivory traded originated from poached elephants. In 1969, there were an estimated 1.3 million Savannah elephants in Africa but by 1997, only 600,000 remained. Today, there are only an estimated 415,000.

Endangered animal species are the most difficult to protect, as poachers go to the most extreme lengths to kill them. If we can safeguard these animals, then entire ecosystems are protected. However, the overall weight of seized ivory in illegal trade is now nearly three times greater than what was observed a decade ago. The trade threatens communities across Africa that are dependent on elephants and other species for income through tourism, therefore saving these endangered animals means preventing poverty, sustaining livelihoods, and promoting sustainable tourism.

Though it’s illegal to kill an elephant in Africa, people continue to slaughter them for ivory or revenge. Roaming elephant herds migrate into human populations in both the forests and savannah. Whereas Masai herdsmen coexist with elephants by leaving their livestock unfenced and letting the animals walk through their land, farmers attempt to barricade their crops from hungry elephant ‘pests’ who may destroy the season’s harvest and their livelihood. Conservationists and scientists are working on education and technology to help elephants and farmers co-exist. 

A survey carried out by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) showed that 70 percent of the Chinese population believed that elephant’s ivory simply fell out and did not inflict any harm on the elephant in the process. This statistic is a firm reminder that education is fundamental to the future survival of elephants.

History of the Trade

Elephant ivory has been exported from Africa and Asia for centuries with records going back to the 14th century BCE. At the peak of the ivory trade during the colonization of Africa, around 800 to 1,000 tonnes of ivory was sent to Europe alone. Ivory hunters were responsible for wiping out elephants in North Africa approximately 1,000 years ago, in South Africa in the 19th century, and most of West Africa by the end of the 20th century.

Global wars and economic depressions resulted in a decline in demand for ivory, before interest was renewed in the 1970s as prosperity improved. Japan began to buy raw ivory, which put pressure on the forest elephants of Africa and Asia, both of which were used to supply the hard ivory preferred by the Japanese for the production of hankos, or name seals. Softer ivory from East Africa and southern Africa was traded for souvenirs, jewelry, and trinkets. Throughout the 1970s, Japan consumed about 40 percent of the global trade and another 40 percent was consumed by Europe and North America, traded through Hong Kong’s trade hub. The rest remained in Africa and at that time China only consumed small amounts of ivory to keep its skilled carvers in business.

In 1986, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) introduced a new control system involving paper permits, registration of huge ivory stockpiles, and monitoring of legal ivory movements. These controls were supported by most CITES participating countries, the ivory trade, and the established conservation movement represented by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Traffic and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 1989, CITES placed an international ban on all international trade to combat the massive illegal market. As a result, major ivory markets were eliminated and some countries in Africa experienced a steep decline in illegal killing allowing some elephant populations to recover.

In June 1997, CITES voted partially to lift trade sanctions and to allow Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia to sell stockpiled ivory to Japan. Many conservation groups feared this loosening of the ivory ban would rekindle poaching throughout the elephants’ range, and following a ‘one-off sale’ in 2008, the illegal trade grew rapidly. In 2011, there were the largest seizures of ivory since records began. Elephant populations again declined quickly as poaching escalated across much of Africa, fuelling the black market. 

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement to which governments voluntarily adhere and which seeks to ensure that the trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

The annual international trade in wildlife ranges from live animals and plants to a vast array of wildlife products derived from them, including foods, exotic leather goods, wooden musical instruments, timber, tourist curios and medicines. Some animal and plant species are heavily exploited and the trade in them, together with other factors such as habitat loss, is capable of seriously depleting their populations and even pushing some close to extinction. Many wildlife species in trade are not endangered, but the existence of an agreement to ensure the sustainability of the trade is important in order to safeguard them for the future.

CITES was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at a meeting of members of The World Conservation Union. It entered into force on July 1, 1975 and today accords varying degrees of protection to more than 30,000 species of animals and plants. States which have agreed to be bound by the Convention are known as Parties. Although CITES is legally binding on the Parties, it does not take the place of national laws but instead provides a framework around which each Party is expected to adopt its own domestic legislation. At present, 175 Parties have opted to be bound by the provisions of CITES.

What is the Conference of the Parties (CoP)?

The Conference of the Parties (CoP) is the supreme body of the Convention, comprising all Parties. Every three years, the Conference of the Parties meets to review the implementation of the Convention. These meetings last for about two weeks and are usually hosted by one of the Parties. The meetings are widely referred to as ‘CoP’ followed by a sequential number indicating the unique identity of the individual meetings (the first meeting was CoP1, the second CoP2, and so on).

Read the full list of participating countries

What are the CITES appendices?

The CITES appendices are lists of animals and plants afforded different levels or types of protection from over-exploitation.

Appendix I lists those species deemed most endangered. They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial, such as for scientific research, when trade may be allowed if authorised by both an import permit and an export permit (or re-export certificate).

Appendix II lists species not necessarily threatened with extinction at present but which may become so unless trade is closely controlled. International trade in specimens of species listed in Appendix II may be authorised by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary under CITES. Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.

Appendix III lists species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species and needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. International trade in specimens of Appendix III species is allowed only on presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates.

Species may be added to or removed from Appendix I and Appendix II, or moved between them, only by the Conference of the Parties, either at its regular meetings or by postal procedures.