Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year, one every 15 minutes. Driven by demand for ivory as a symbol of wealth or prestige, the illicit profits of ivory trade finance wars, terrorism, illegal drugs and human trafficing.
Trade in ivory has been around for centuries. It reached its peak when Africa was colonized. This coincided with the industrial revolution in United Kingdom, Western Europe and America creating a vast demand for ivory. It found use in diverse objects like piano keys, billiard balls, ornaments, jewelry, bow clips, hair pins, needles, buttons, etc. The worst and obvious victims of the trade were the elephants.
Entire populations of this beast was wiped out in North Africa about a thousand years ago, before the Europeans came. The colonization period saw the virtual decimation of the elephant in South Africa during the 19th century and West Africa in the 20th century. The two World Wars in the 20th century saw a sharp fall in ivory trade and provided some respite to the elephants. But the rising affluence from Japan's industrial revival, and the burgeoning wealth of the Middle-eastern oil-rich states in the 1970's, brought back a renewed interest in ivory. The affluent middle class in China since the 1990's created another great market for the product.
The Asian elephant's population has witnessed a decline of nearly 50 percent, from over a 100,000 a century ago to just over 50,000 presently. The male elephant carries tusks while the female does not. The tusk can reach a length of 5 feet and weigh up to 47 kilograms. The tusk of the Asian elephant is in demand for products that require intricate carving. Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf states are some areas where this ivory is in high demand.
The African elephant consists of two subspecies. The forest elephants are shorter and darker than their Savannah cousins. They are found in the central and western equatorial forests of Africa, primarily in Congo. The 1890's and early 1900's witnessed the mass decimation of this animal by the Belgian colonialists when slave labor was extensively used to transport ivory to North African ports for its ultimate destination in Western Europe.
The bush elephant that inhabited the bush areas of Kalahari in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe is another sub-species that was driven to extinction from rampant hunting by the Dutch and British colonialists.
But the main targets of the ivory trade have always been the Savannah elephants, the largest of all species, known for their huge and magnificent tusks. The male tusks can measure up to 7-8 feet and weigh up to 100 lbs. Unlike their Asian counterparts, even the females have tusks. These mighty creatures are often seen in the vast expanses of the Savannah grassland plains straddling Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The most shocking decline of this elephant species has been witnessed recently in Tanzania in a span of just six years. The count reduced dramatically from 109,000 to 43,000, which is a devastating drop of 60 percent. The Selous Game Reserve is a gold mine for ivory looters who have accounted for as many as 32,000 Savannah elephant deaths.
There are only about 470,000 elephants roaming the continent of Africa presently. Compare this to 3 to 5 million that roamed the vast expanses at the beginning of the 20th century. It's a frightening drop of 90 percent.
Governments and wildlife agencies have woken up to this terrible loss of wildlife. Virtually every country in the continent, from South Africa to Zimbabwe to Uganda and Tanzania, have placed a ban on ivory trading. Although these bans were put into effect decades ago, only 20 percent of the African elephant habitat is under formal protection.
From over 100 seizures made in the continent in the last 15 years, almost 465,000 pounds of ivory were recovered. That translates into the deaths of over 30,000 elephants. But this hasn't dampened the illegal trade in ivory. Tens of thousands of elephants are lost every year; one killed every 15 minutes.
Organized crime is involved in the transportation of ivory to its preferred destinations, mostly the US and China. The US has put a complete ban on the sale of ivory and ivory items. The immense demand for ornaments and jewellery carved from ivory make China the biggest consumer for the product. Steps have been taken in China to end domestic sales of ivory. In places like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, ivory is in demand for its alleged medicinal properties.
Despite recent efforts, elephant poaching is at its highest level in decades. Valued at US$19 billion annually, illegal wildlife trade ranks fifth globally in terms of value. Domestic ivory markets provides cover for criminals to launder illegal ivory from poached animals. The Internet is utilized for secret, fast and convenient communications and transactions. The criminals that smuggle ivory also smuggle guns, people, and drugs.
Unless the slaughter of elephants is halted, we will likely see these magnificent animals disappear within a few decades. Stopping the crisis will require efforts from a diverse coalition of governments, institutions, organizations, media, scientists, and individuals.