Ivory—How Much Is It Worth?
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN KENYA
At an international conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, during June 1997, delegates from 138 countries voted to ease a seven-year-old global ban on the trade in ivory. The decision, which followed bitter debate, allows three nations in southern Africa—Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe—conditionally to sell ivory to one country, Japan. Representatives from southern Africa rejoiced at the decision, breaking forth in song. Other delegates brooded with apprehension at what this might mean for the African elephant.
WHEN Hannibal challenged the army of Rome in the third century B.C.E., he had with him a train of domesticated African elephants. In those days African elephants probably numbered in the tens of millions and thrived from the Cape to Cairo.
Things changed. One observer noted: “Human islands in a sea of elephants changed to increasingly small islands of elephants in a sea of people.” As people increased in numbers, competition for land left elephants the losers. Another factor in the decline of elephants was the expansion southward of the Sahara Desert.
Overshadowing these reasons, however, was the demand for ivory. Unlike tiger bone and rhino horn, ivory is not bound to any myth of pharmaceutical value. Nevertheless, it is luxurious, beautiful, durable, and easy to carve. From ancient times, ivory from elephant tusks has been classed among things precious and desirable.
Four hundred years after Hannibal, the Roman Empire decimated elephant populations in northern Africa to satisfy a craving for ivory. That craving has burned, especially in the Western world, ever since. Early in this century, the demand had become intense—not so much for works of art and religious objects as before but for the production of piano keyboards. According to the book Battle for the Elephants, in the year 1910 alone, about 700 tons of ivory (representing 13,000 slaughtered elephants) was used to make 350,000 keyboards in the United States.
An Orgy of Poaching
Following the first world war, the demand for ivory declined, new wildlife conservation laws were passed, and elephants began to increase in numbers. By the early 1970’s, however, large-scale killing began afresh. Now the call for ivory came from newly prosperous Asian countries.
This time, two factors portended disaster for elephants in Africa. First was the increased availability of lightweight, sophisticated weapons. Suddenly it was easy to gun down not only individual elephants but also entire herds. Second, electric carving tools meant that raw ivory could be swiftly transformed into items ready for market. In the past, a Japanese carver might have spent a year carving a single tusk. With electric tools, however, in just one week, a factory of eight people making jewelry and hanko (name seals popular in Japan) could consume the tusks of 300 elephants. Rising demands for ivory caused prices to soar. Of course, the big money did not go to the poachers but to middlemen and dealers, many of whom became fabulously wealthy.
The cost in elephants was horrendous. Within roughly two decades, Tanzania lost 80 percent of its elephants, mostly to poachers. Kenya lost 85 percent of its elephants. Uganda lost 95 percent. At first, poachers shot mainly bull elephants, because they had the largest tusks. But as the older elephants became fewer, poachers began shooting even calves for their puny tusks. During that period, more than a million elephants may have been slaughtered for their ivory, cutting Africa’s elephant population to 625,000.
Efforts to control trade in ivory and to halt the carnage failed miserably. Finally, in October 1989, at a conference in Switzerland, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) banned all trade in ivory among its member nations. The ban was bolstered by massive funding to protect elephants in the field.
Some predicted that a ban on ivory would produce higher black-market prices and that poaching would increase. The opposite happened. Prices plummeted, and once lucrative markets dried up. In India, for example, retail sales of ivory fell by 85 percent, and most of the country’s ivory craftsmen had to find other work. Poaching decreased dramatically. Before the ban, poachers in Kenya slaughtered at least 2,000 elephants a year. By 1995, the figure had dropped to 35. Moreover, Kenya’s elephant population increased from 19,000 in 1989 to about 26,000 today.
For these reasons, the Environmental Investigation Agency, based in London, hailed the trade ban on ivory as “one of the great successes of recent conservation history.” Not everyone shares this enthusiasm, however, especially in southern Africa.
The Elephants of Southern Africa
Southern African countries have more than 200,000 elephants, or about a third of the entire African elephant population. This is due partly to sound conservation policies and partly to the fact that these countries escaped the heavily armed militias that slaughtered the herds of East and Central Africa.
As elephant populations increase, however, there is often conflict between elephants and people who live in rural areas. After all, an adult elephant has a huge appetite and is able to consume over 600 pounds [up to 300 kg] of vegetation a day. If an elephant lives in your neighborhood, you know it.
Africa Resources Trust, based in Zimbabwe, states: “Elephants are regarded with fear, suspicion and hostility by most rural Africans. In a few hours, elephants can ruin people’s livelihood by eating their crops or trampling their livestock to death. They also damage houses and schools, cattle sheds, fruit trees, dams and soil contours. Every day local newspapers carry reports of elephant damage.”
Southern African nations take pride in their success in maintaining healthy elephant populations. But conservation is expensive, and they do not believe that they should be penalized for the problems of other African countries. A controlled ivory trade, they reason, would allow money to be pumped back into conservation efforts and would help to compensate rural farmers for their losses.
In countries where elephants roam, ivory accumulates. It comes from elephants that have been culled, from elephants that die of natural causes, and from illegal hoards that have been confiscated. What is done with this ivory?
Kenya burns her ivory. Since July 1989, Kenya has publicly torched raw ivory worth millions of dollars, with no direct compensation from outside sources. In 1992, Zambia also burned its ivory stockpile. The message was clear: Kenya and Zambia wanted no part in the ivory trade.
Other countries have kept their stockpiles as a future investment. TRAFFIC, the world’s largest wildlife monitoring organization, estimates that the total volume of ivory presently stockpiled in African countries is at least 462 tons, worth 46 million dollars. Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, the three countries now permitted to trade with Japan, hold 120 tons of ivory. Therefore, many ask, ‘In a region where people are struggling economically, why let ivory collect dust in warehouses? Why not sell it and channel the funds back into conservation?’
While some African nations argue that an easing of the ivory ban will help elephant conservation, others passionately believe that a total trade ban is the only measure that will prevent a renewed poaching frenzy. Concerns center on how strictly the trade is controlled. Might marketing systems provide loopholes through which poached ivory can enter the legal trade? Also, what of speculative poaching? Might the relaxing of the ban mean that elephants will be killed and ivory hoarded by those who hope that the ban might be further relaxed in the future?
Added to these worries is the fact that guns are more plentiful in Africa than ever. Civil wars here have put automatic rifles into the hands of people who, spurred by harsh economic conditions, are willing to use them to make money. Nehemiah Rotich, director of the East African Wildlife Society, wrote: “With a price placed on ivory [because of renewed trade], there is no question that these guns will be turned onto elephants—after all it is much easier to shoot an elephant in a vast park than it is to rob a city bank.”
An additional problem is that antipoaching measures are not only expensive but also difficult. Patrolling the vast areas where elephants roam demands huge financial resources. In East Africa, these are hard to find.
What Future for the Elephant?
The consequences of the decision to relax the ban on the trade in ivory remain to be seen. Yet, even if things work out well, the threat to the elephant will not vanish. The elephant is also threatened by growing numbers of people who need land for farming and for other reasons. In southern Africa alone, people deforest, mostly for agriculture, more than 3,000 square miles [some 850,000 ha] of land each year—an area half the size of Israel. As the sea of people grows larger, the islands of elephants are certain to become ever smaller.
World Watch magazine states: “There is one point on which everyone who has studied the problem agrees: the African elephant faces a difficult future. The habitat crisis [due to growing numbers of people] is bound to mean that many elephants will die prematurely, one way or another. If they aren’t killed by licensed hunts or culling operations—or slaughtered by poachers—many more will die by starvation in population crashes.”
This gloomy prospect considers neither the views nor the purpose of the elephant’s Creator, Jehovah God. God’s concern for the creatures he has made is evident from the words of Jesus Christ, who said: “Five sparrows sell for two coins of small value, do they not? Yet not one of them goes forgotten before God.” (Luke 12:6) If God does not forget a tiny sparrow, we may be certain he does not ignore the plight of the large elephant.
[Box on page 16]
“Ivory is no doubt a beautiful substance. It has an incandescence and warmth unlike any other material used for ornaments or sculpture. But I always feel that people forget that ivory is the tusk of an elephant. The word ivory disassociates it in our minds from the idea of an elephant. One tends to lump it with jade, teak, ebony, amber, even gold and silver, but there is a major difference: The other materials did not come from an animal; an ivory tusk is a modified incisor tooth. When one holds a beautiful ivory bracelet or delicate carving in one’s hand, it takes a certain leap of understanding to realize that that piece of ivory came from an elephant who once walked around using its tusk for feeding, digging, poking, playing and fighting, and furthermore that the elephant had to be dead in order for that piece of ivory to be sitting in one’s hand.”—Elephant Memories, by Cynthia Moss.
[Box on page 19]
Elephants are immensely powerful, and when they are angry, the earth trembles. An elephant can seize you with its trunk and fling you through the air like a stone. Yet, an elephant can also caress you with its trunk or gently take food from your hand. Elephants are intelligent, complicated, and funny. They display strong family loyalty and will tend each other’s wounds, stand watch over their sick, and react to the death of a family member. While ignoring the remains of other animals, they recognize the bones of other elephants and react by scattering or burying them.
[Pictures on page 18]
Two countries have burned their ivory; others have kept their stockpiles as an investment