Ivory Trade - the Problem of African Elephant's Population

Weighing in at up to a staggering 6 tonnes, standing up to 3.3 meters high at the shoulder and measuring 7.5 meters in length, African Elephants are the largest land animals in the world. There are two subspecies of African elephants, the larger savannah elephant and the smaller forest elephant. Notable features of African Elephants are the trunk – which has a variety of uses and has two opposing extensions on the end, the tusks – modified incisor teeth that grow continuously throughout both male and female elephants’ lives – and their large ears, used to radiate excess heat, cooling the elephant down. Elephant are mammals, meaning they give birth to live young that they must nurse, and are warm blooded animals. Elephants travel and live in groups known as herds. A single herd may consist of as little as eight elephants, up to 100. African Elephants are wild animals, but under certain circumstances African elephants may be held in captivity, such as conservation or entertainment purposes (i.e. zoos and circus’s).

The Ivory Trade is the term used when referring to the – commonly illegal – trade of tusks from elephants, walruses, whales (sperm and killer), narwhal and wart hog. The illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007. Elephants are most susceptible to the illegal ivory trade. Any piece of ivory taken from an elephant, whether it be the entire tusk or a carved trinket, results in the death of the animal it was taken from. This is due to the crucial role tusks play in the lives of these majestic animals. Elephants use their tusks for digging, lifting objects, stripping bark from trees in order to eat it, gathering food and for defence. Ivory tusks are the most desirable part of elephants, but their meat and skin are also traded.

African elephants are killed in their tens or thousands each year for their ivory. Only a century ago, there were roughly five million African elephants across the continent. These numbers have now diminished to less than 500,000. There was a decline of 30% in savannah elephant populations between 2007 and 2014. Forest elephant populations saw an even larger decrease of 60% in an earlier time period (2002-2011).

China is the largest consumer of ivory. From 2010 to 2014, the price of ivory in China tripled. This caused illegal poaching of elephants to increase at an alarming rate. In 2011, the world began losing more elephants than the remaining population could reproduce. Female elephants are pregnant for 22 months, making the reproduction cycle of elephants slow. As of last year, there were still more African Elephants being slaughtered for their ivory than there were elephants being born, this is causing elephant populations to continue to decline. Bull elephants (males) with large tusks are the most sought after and frequently killed. Their numbers are dwindling unstably at less than half the female population. Female elephants are not safe from poachers and are targeted as well. This leaves the intricately designed and build structure of elephant societies vulnerable, as well as increasing the number of orphaned calf’s (baby elephants). These new born elephants are the key to protecting and safeguarding future African Elephant populations. Elephant calves are completely dependent on their mothers for the first two-three years of their lives. After two years, the calf will begin to eat on its own, but its mother’s milk still plays a crucial role in its diet. Other females, known as aunts, in the herd will help care for and protect calves, but if the calf’s mother is to die before the calf is two years of age, even its aunts cannot keep it alive. The longevity of the African elephant species ultimately relays on calves, and without their mothers, who are killed for their ivory, the chances of calves surviving are slim.

Elephant Ivory has several commercial uses including being used to produce handles, objects of decorative value, billiard balls and the keys of piano’s and organs. Ivory has a high value and is prized for its close-grained texture, mellow colouration, adhesive hardness and smooth surface. Ivory can be painted, bleached and carved making it a very versatile material to use. The modern industry uses ivory in the production of electrical appliances, including the specialised manufacturing of equipment for airplanes and radar.

Some countries have attempted to introduce laws to limit commercial domestic trade to older ivory items. These pieces are known as ‘antiques’ or ‘relics’ depending on how old they are (predating 1974, 1947 or being over a century old). There are international bans and restrictions on the trading of ‘new’ ivory pieces. These policies have proven to be ineffective as authenticating older ivory is difficult. Loosely interpreted and poorly enforced regulations are a convenient loop-hole for ivory traders to use. Once illegal ivory has entered the legal system of trade it is nearly impossible to recognise that it should not be there. By the time the trading of illegal ivory can ever be correctly policed worldwide and the corruption in this trade network are addressed, it will be far to late to save African Elephant populations. In order to conserve the remaining populations of wild African Elephants all markets must be closed as current corruption levels do not permit sufficient control over illegal ivory entering the legal markets.

I believe that the ivory trade is a cruel, unnecessary burden on African Elephants and all other animals involved in this trade. The pain and suffering each animal and their herd go through for this cause in immense and unneeded. If international ivory trade markets are to remain operational, poaching is to continue, and inadequate policing and handling of such issues is to persist, the planet will lose African elephants completely. These beautiful creatures that once roomed the plains of Africa, numbers plentiful, may soon be gone entirely. It is predicted that African Elephants may go extinct by 2020. Such a loss would be truly tragic. The illegal ivory trade, run by humans, kills more elephants every year than any of their natural predators, this is just one representation of the power people possess, and abuse. If such reckless behaviour continues, we will to lose everything we hold dear. It is not any carnivore, country or war that pose the greatest threat to the planet and all living organisms on it, but people. Each and every one, that inhabits the planet. Such a spectacle is not a rare occurrence in modern times. The endangered species list is comprised of many ‘common’ animals such as the Sea Turtle, Snow Leopard, Tiger, Black Rhino and giraffes. Dramatic changes must be made promptly to conserve wild African elephant populations, and the lives of all animal species, for the future.

29 April 2022
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