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Ivory by Marge Mueller


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Below is an article titled Ivory by Marge Mueller. This is one of a list of articles submitted from people around the world who are concerned about the fate of the elephant. Please enjoy them, send me your comments at and share your compassion with others. Should you wish to contact her then please e-mail her at

November 9, 1999
For Sale: Ivory
By Marge Mueller

Imagine if your kids or grandkids never got to see an elephant. What if all the wild elephants died?

That will probably happen.

The world's watchdog for monitoring trade in animal species dealt a painful blow to the once mighty elephant. Breaking the ban on ivory trade for the first time since 1990, elephant ivory was legally sold for the first time last spring.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) considers both African and Asian elephants under "threat of extinction." Yet, it allowed the African countries of Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell stockpiles of ivory to Japan in a supposed "one-time" sale. The Japanese bought almost 34 tons of "white gold." Allegedly, the tusks were taken from elephants who died naturally or were considered "problem animals" and subsequently culled (killed).

Trading ivory has taken place for centuries, yet it blossomed in the 1970s and 1980s when the use of automatic weapons by hunters created a lucrative trade with low overhead for the ruthless elephant hunters.

The elephant population numbered more than 10 million before Europeans arrived on the African continent. By 1989, more than 770 tons of legal and illegal tusks were traded yearly and exported from Africa. This meant that every year Africa lost at least 75,000 elephants.

And for what?

The Japanese, the primary consumers of ivory, use these modified elephant teeth to make personal signature seals. Wooden seals work fine, but ivory ones are nothing more than a status symbol. And what about the rest of this sought after commodity? Most ivory is carved into useless trinkets and nonfunctional decorative pieces. Is an elephant's life worth that—nothing?

Scientists created a substance similar in make-up to ivory. But for our generation of status seeking individuals, only the real thing will do.

Why do Africans allow the sale of elephant tusks? Many Africans would rather see all their elephants dead. They often consider them destructive nuisances. At best, elephants are a food item processed in meat factories and sold as "bush meat."

Some African countries have only recently developed tourism. With tourism they can exploit elephants without killing them.

Unfortunately, many of these poor countries lack the infrastructure to maintain successful eco-tourism endeavors. Tanzania is the world's second poorest country. It would like to develop wildlife tourism but simply cannot afford to upgrade the present infrastructure to accommodate the influx of tourists. Instead, it sells hunting permits at $10,000 per elephant tag.

Some countries do support the ban on ivory sales and attempt to fight the ongoing battle with poachers. It sounds promising when game wardens have orders to "Shoot to kill" poachers. In reality it is nothing more than a façade. The poverty in these third world nations renders their attempts to fight useless.

Game wardens are equipped with inferior, outdated weapons. Some of their rifles date back to World War II and are so warped they cannot be fired. They must fight with what amounts to metal clubs against the ivory cartels and their Uzi machine guns and helicopters.

At first CITES placed the African elephant under the "endangered" listing, meaning limited trade in ivory could still occur. Controlling the trade proved impossible. Illegal ivory trade blossomed. Elephants continued to die in staggering numbers.

Some countries were more lax than others because of their own internal political turmoil. Burundi, for example, had only one elephant living inside its borders, yet between 1976 and 1986 tusks from about 200,000 elephants were exported from Burundi.

Before the CITES ban 75 percent of all ivory exported from Africa came from illegal ivory trades. At the time the value of ivory was about $125 per pound. A pair of tusks on a large bull can weigh more than 300 pounds.

Americans imported only six percent of the world's raw ivory, yet took in 16 percent of worked or carved ivory (ranking third in the world). This included the U.S. buying more than five tons of illegal ivory from Zaire, which had banned commercial sales of elephant tusks.

Once the ivory ban took effect, the price of ivory plummeted to around $3-10 per pound. Some countries, such as Kenya, Uganda and South Africa saw stabilization or growth in their elephant populations. Both elephant and human populations grew rapidly in South Africa.

Human encroachment on elephant range created new problems for Africans and their elephants. Elephants started raiding crops, occasionally killing villagers in the process. The South African solution was to create game parks and confine elephants within these boundaries.

As expected, the pachyderms refused to cooperate. First, they outgrew their confined range. Second, they refused to remain within the park boundaries. Crop raiding continued. South Africa solved this by culling entire elephant families, even herds. Sometimes the infant elephants were kept, abused and later sold overseas.

And what about the elephants who continue to survive? The decimation of their families and herds has created problems for these animals socially. Older breeding bulls and matriarchs are often killed first because of their larger tusk size. This creates turmoil in the social structure for both males and females of the species.

Matriarchs spend their entire lives building knowledge of where the best food and water sources are. If she and the other large-tusked females are killed, young inexperienced daughters or nieces must assume the leadership position. They often fail to guide the rest of the family effectively. This loss of leadership leads to further undocumented elephant deaths.

Although bulls spend much of their lives leading a solitary lifestyle, the older ones spend part of their time educating adolescent ones on how to be male elephants. Perhaps it sounds trivial but there have been documented cases of rogue, young bulls tormenting and injuring, even killing other wildlife and humans. In all cases the older bulls in the herd had been killed earlier leaving no male role models.

In the next millennium we are faced with the reality that elephants may not survive even the next few decades. Yet the world continues to demand ivory. If one sale takes place, why not a second or a third? Why not open the trade again? These are the questions African countries and the rest of the world will grapple with at the next CITES convention in April 2000.

The equation is simple: one piece of ivory equals one dead elephant.


Africa News Online CITES Permits Controlled Ivory Sale

African Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife News, Summer 1999 "Elephant News From All Over"

Convention on International trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, "CITES-listed

Species Database Fauna Search Results: Explanatory note"

Daily Mail & Guardian

Moss, Cynthia, "Elephant Memories Thirteen Year in the Life of an Elephant Family", William

Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988

Orenstein, Ronald, "Elephants The Deciding Decade", Firefly Books (U.S.) Inc., 1997

Rue III, Leonard Lee, "Elephants A Portrait Of The Animal World", Todtri Productions

Limited, 1994

TED Case Studies "Elephant Ivory Trade Ban"

Wild Net Africa News Archive

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