The Ivory Ban

Background on the Ban
Used for objects like jewelry, seals, vases, and statues—ivory has been a valued material since the Stone Age. As elephant populations have decreased and ivory has become scarce, substitute materials have been adopted for objects formerly made of ivory, like piano keys and white billiard balls. How does the demand for ivory threaten the future of the elephant population that provides it?

At a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) recently reconfirmed their commitment to protect Africa's elephants by declaring an international ban on the trade of ivory. There was compromise by parties on both sides of the issue. Countries that wanted to renew the ivory trade under controlled circumstances agreed to postpone changes until better systems are established for monitoring both poaching and trading. At the same time, countries that wanted to ban trade in all elephant products agreed to allow certain states to conduct limited trade in live animals and hides.

Like many endangered species around the world, the biggest threat to African elephants is man, including poachers. Throughout the 1980s, ivory was trading for over $100 per pound, making it an attractive commodity to subsistence farmers, cash-strapped governments, and revolutionaries trying to finance troops. As a result, African elephant populations—estimated at 3 million to 5 million in the early 1900s plummeted at the hands of poachers.

In 1989, CITES moved the African elephant from Appendix II, a classification that allows controlled international trade under a permit system, to Appendix I, which prevents all international trade. The trade ban caused the price of ivory to drop, having an immediate impact on elephant populations. While the worldwide population has continued to decrease in the decade since the ban was announced, the rate at which it is decreasing has slowed considerably. Some countries have actually seen growth in their local elephant populations.

Year # African Elephants Ivory Trade Status
1979 Census 1,300,000 Heavy poaching begins
1989 Census 625,000 Ivory ban adopted
1999 Estimates under 500,000 Ivory ban renewed
  • By what percentage did the African elephant population drop during the 1980s, when ivory could legally be traded?

  • By what percentage did the same population drop during the 1990s, when the ivory ban was in effect?

Once the elephants were moved to Appendix I, their populations in some countries began to recover. At the CITES meeting in 1997, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe pushed through a decision to move their elephants back to Appendix II, although with some trade restrictions. These countries argued that the populations within their borders had sufficiently rebounded. They proposed that they dedicate income from the sale of stockpiled ivory to conservation work, further helping the elephant populations.

The 1997 decision approved a one-time sale of ivory, which took place in spring 1999. Unfortunately, not all the ivory that was traded during the approved sale was itself legal—smugglers managed to trade illegal ivory as well. Furthermore, poachers took the approved sale as a signal that legal ivory trade might be renewed, and they began building ivory stockpiles. Since the 1989 ban, officials had seized an average of 350 kg of illegal ivory annually. In the year since the 1999 sale, officials captured 1,900 kg of illegal ivory.

  • By what percentage did the amount of illegal ivory seized rise in the year since the controlled sale?

  • Read about a recent seizure of illegal ivory in the ENN article, "Thai seize 112 elephant tusks."


The Culling Factor

The Asian Cousins

While the African elephants were the focus of the discussion at the CITES meeting, their Asian cousins are also in danger. Elephants are sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, two major religions throughout Asia. Only male Asian elephants have tusks, and they are not as thick as those of African elephants, so poaching is not as serious a problem for the Asian elephant populations.

The biggest threat to the Asian elephant population comes from the rapid growth of the human population and the loss of natural habitat. Asian elephants are starving to death. Today's Asian elephant population is estimated to be between 35,000 to 55,000. About 16,000 of these elephants are domesticated, used for logging and other heavy work. Many owners of domesticated elephants are finding it difficult to find enough food to keep the animals fed, so the domesticated elephants face a similar risk to elephants in the wild.

As Earth's largest terrestrial mammal, elephants need lots of land, food, and water. As human populations have grown in Africa, they have encroached upon the elephants' natural habitat, posing another serious threat to the African elephant population's survival.

In some countries in southern Africa, the elephant populations are concentrated in nature reserves. The populations at these parks have grown to a number that can no longer be supported by the natural resources of the park, i.e., some of the elephants will starve to death, because their numbers have exceeded the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. To learn more about this concept, see the Biology Gateways activity: Carrying Capacity.

The principle behind culling is that the killing of the few prevents the starvation of the many. Culling teams try to bring elephants and their ecosystems into equilibrium. Since elephants have sophisticated social interactions, culling teams try to shoot entire families of elephants, in order to have as little social impact as possible on the herds.

The countries that practice culling want to sell the ivory from the culled animals in order to finance conservation efforts. Countries whose elephant populations are still at high risk are afraid that this renewed ivory trade will encourage poachers throughout Africa.

Compromise into the Future
The CITES delegates will reconsider the ivory ban in 2002. Until then, the countries of southern Africa will be allowed to trade live elephants for reintroduction into former habitats. They will also be able to sell elephant hides and leather goods, but not ivory. Since it is considerably more difficult to skin an elephant than to saw off its tusks, this compromise is not seen as encouragement to poachers.

The challenge facing conservationists is to get monitoring systems in place so that CITES parties at the next meeting will have reliable information on poaching and elephant populations.

Related Reading
If you love elephants and are concerned about their fate, follow developments over the next two years in order to take an educated stand on votes that are likely to arise at the 12th CITES conference in 2002. You can learn more from the following resources:

Return to Top