Stop the Ivory Trade:Protect African Elephants
By Ling Hui & Mi Zhe
In May 2014, one of Kenya’s largest African elephants, Satao, was shot by poachers in Kenya’s national park. He suffered a painful death, his body writhing from the effects of a poisoned arrow. His face was badly mutilated, his giant tusks taken.
The Unkind Truth
Elephants in their natural habitat are a beautiful sight to behold. Herds stroll on the grassland flapping their large fan-like ears. Their majestic trunks and striking white tusks are poetry in motion. They are animals of deep intelligence and powerful familial bonds.
However, in recent years, such beautiful sights have gradually disappeared in parts of the world. Particularly in Africa, the tragic poaching of elephants occurs almost on a daily basis. In 2013, about 20,000 African elephants were slaughtered to feed human’s insatiable demand for a piece of ivory to add to their collection. Poachers are driven by the economic gains provided by the ivory trade.
Many ivory consumers mistakenly believe that elephants can regrow tusks that were removed. In fact, an elephant grows only one pair of tusks in its lifetime. Moreover, as over one-third of an elephant’s tusk is embedded in its skull, poachers often hollow the faces of elephants with axes in an attempt to remove the tusks completely, killing the elephant in a most brutal way.
Dying Before Their Time
African elephants are facing an unprecedented crisis. With the rapid growth of Africa’s population and destruction of forests and grasslands – the natural habitats of a multitude of wildlife – the mortality rate of African elephants has been fast increasing. Illegal poaching has accelerated the dwindling of the elephant population. Poachers use guns and poison arrows to hunt elephants, and even poison the water source in elephant settlements with deadly cyanide, killing off herds.
It is estimated that about 35,000 elephants are hunted each year for ivory, which equates to an elephant being killed every 15 minutes on average. The population of African elephants is estimated to have been around seven to 10 million in the 1930s. Today, a mere 300,000 remain. If this rate of decline continues, elephants will be extinct in 10 to 20 years.
African elephants usually reproduce once every four to six years, and their gestation period of 20 to 22 months is the longest of all mammals. The number of African elephants slaughtered far exceeds their birth rates.
Poverty, poor supervision, escalating demands for ivory, and increasingly sophisticated smuggling operations are the main reasons for the frequent poaching of elephants in Africa.
In response to the escalating poaching crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, the international community decided to include African elephants in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1989, thus completely banning the commercial trade of ivory internationally.
Unfortunately, certain ivories were legalized, and this loophole has had a drastic negative impact. In 2008, the sale of stockpiled ivory to China and Japan boosted demand for ivory products, dramatically spiking prices. A legal collection permit became a cover for many illegal ivories, and consequently the poaching crisis escalated.
Faulty government controls and ineffectual legislative and enforcement systems are also to blame for the crisis, along with rampant poaching. A chronic lack of funds for wildlife management and protection means that areas designated as protected are not effectively safeguarded against poachers.
Consequences of Elephant Poaching
In the wild, elephants eat large quantities of thorns and shrubs and clear away overgrown weeds, providing room for other plants to grow. As elephant digestion efficiency is only 40 percent, seeds are excreted in elephants’ waste. Thus, their digestive process serves as a form of plant propagation. Furthermore, elephants open up paths in the dense jungle, making it possible for sunlight and other animals to access and benefit the area. Many birds like to travel with elephants, feasting on grassland pests that get unsettled along the herd’s tracks.
Therefore, elephants are also known as “eco-engineers” and “forest farmers,” key to maintaining the balance of the environment and ecology. The endangerment and extinction of elephants and other wildlife affects the ecological balance, and ultimately the sustainable development of humanity.
Zoologists have found that killing wild elephants seriously harms the mental health of the surviving members of the herd. The tragic deaths of family members and companions leave a large psychological scar, leading to the emergence of a variety of abnormal behaviors.
Damage to Tourism
Dame Daphne Sheldrick, founder of Kenya’s David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, believes that hunting elephants brings huge economic losses to the country’s tourism industry, leading directly to job loss for millions of workers. These losses occur because the elephant is one of the most popular animals with tourists. Local communities need to be educated about conservation and shown that elephants and all wildlife can coexist with humans through environmentally friendly farming techniques and ecotourism.
Coming Together to Protect Elephants
With the growing illegal ivory trade, African elephants are currently experiencing the most serious poaching in 10 years, and countries are joining forces to bolster efforts in wildlife protection.
On February 13, 2014, the heads of state of Botswana, Chad, Gabon, and Tanzania signed a ban on ivory trade extending for at least 10 years at the Wildlife Summit in London. In order to save the elephants, these countries refused to act on their option to sell stockpiled ivory.
Thailand is the world’s largest unregulated trading market for ivory products, as well as a key destination to which illegal ivory products from Africa are smuggled. On March 3, 2013, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra stated for the first time that domestic ivory products would be banned so as to minimize the poaching of African elephants. On September 25, 2015, China and the United States issued a ban on commercial ivory sales in their countries and strengthened cooperation to combat illegal wildlife trade.
The world needs to come together to turn the tide on illegal ivory trade. We must halt each step in the supply chain: poaching, transportation, smuggling, processing, and marketing. Only through the cooperation of the originating, transit and destination countries in educating the public, defining the appropriate legislation and enforcing the rules, can significant impact be achieved.
Consumers wield incredible power to effect change through their marketplace choices. What we choose and refuse has an immense ripple effect. As consumers, we need to play our part in elephant welfare by rejecting the purchase of ivory products. How could we purchase any ivory product, however exquisite, when we know each one tells an unseen story of cruel killing? All life is interconnected on planet Earth; any part of the ecology being harmed will eventually affect human beings.
The greed-driven slaughter of elephants has far-reaching consequences for the health of the planet. We need to treat our environment and world with more love, kindness and compassion. Respect for all lifeforms is essential, as is gratitude for Nature. Only through compassionate action can we live in harmony with the spirit of life and the beauty of Mother Earth.