Ivory trade: Why elephant poaching is still rampant

In China and other Asian countries, ivory is a status symbol for an emerging middle class, a situation some observers say is contributing to the huge spike reported this week in the death rate of African elephants at the hands of poachers.

World's largest land mammal doesn't deserve to die 'for trinkets or financial investment'

An elephant is pictured in Tsavo East National Park in southern Kenya on Jan. 31, 2013. (Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty)

In some countries, the idea of cherishing anything made of ivory has become repugnant, especially given that an elephant had to die — usually at the hands of poachers — before any elaborate carving of its tusks could be done.

In areas such as China and other Asian countries, however, ivory remains a symbol of status for an emerging middle class, some conservationists say.

In this Feb. 13, 2013, file photo, a Maasai boy and his dog stand near the skeleton of an elephant killed by poachers outside of Arusha, Tanzania. (Jason Straziuso/Associated Press)

And that's contributing to the huge spike reported this week in the death rate of African elephants at the hands of poachers.

"There's a burgeoning middle class that has a lot more expendable money and time, and is able to buy nice things now," says Jake Wall, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia and a research scientist with the Kenya-based Save the Elephants organization.

"I don't think many people understand the effect that buying ivory is having, and a lot of people [in China] believe that the tusks simply fall out of elephants and that they're collected and turned into carvings.

"They don't realize that elephants are being massacred for their ivory, and so that level of education is sorely needed in China and places in Asia."

Complicated history

China knows it has an image problem around the ivory trade, but the demand for ivory is still there.

"China is a very complicated case culturally and image-wise and so on," says Colman O'Criodain, international wildlife trade policy analyst with the World Wildlife Fund International.

The country is "very proud historically of its artistic ivory-carving tradition," he said in an interview from Geneva.

Pieces of ivory that were seized from illegal trade are seen after being smashed by authorities in Tervuren, Belgium, on April 9, 2014. The 1.7 tonnes of ivory with an estimated value of 680,000 euros ($930,000) were seized in recent years by Belgian customs. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

"On the one hand there's a drive to reinforce that and to protect it, but on the other hand of course they are conscious of the fact that they're seen as one of the drivers of poaching."

As he sees it, the main driver for the loss of elephants from the savannahs and forests of Africa is not the  desire for big artistic carvings. "It's the small trinkets like bangles and chopsticks and earrings and so on, because they result in far more wastage."

Ivory was, he says, originally very much reserved for the aristocracy, but now its use is spreading to an increasing affluent middle class.

"They want to acquire the trappings of the aristocracy there, so they want to give presents of ivory or rhino horn or tiger wine."

'Whiff of danger'

Plus, he says, there's a "whiff of danger" around ivory that makes it attractive.

"There's also a cultural consideration there, too, because a bit like moonshine in the United States …. there's a kind of cachet about the illegal product, that you have to go to more trouble to get it."

In fact, according to a report in the Guardian, the price of ivory in China has tripled in the past four years because of demand.

A herd of adult and baby elephants walks in the dawn light.
A herd of adult and baby elephants walks in the dawn light across Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya on Dec. 17, 2012. (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)

Wall points to a decision in 2008 to sell 102 tonnes of stockpiled ivory to accredited Chinese and Japanese traders, a sale supervized by the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

"That essentially introduced legal ivory back into Asian markets, and ever since then we've seen this dramatic increase in poaching, peaking in 2011.

"It shows that if you trickle in a little bit of an illicit and coveted substance …you create this huge black market for it as well."

However, countering that black market, and the poaching that is threatening the population of the world's largest land mammal, is not a simple prospect.

Observers say it requires a multi-pronged approach that reaches from Africa to the ports through which smuggled ivory travels to those middle-class folks who covet the goods.

'Many-headed beast'

"It's like a many-headed beast to tackle," says George Wittemyer, a Colorado State University professor who was lead author of the report this week that found poachers have killed an estimated 100,000 elephants across Africa between 2010 and 2012.

"For me, the key to the whole story is really undermining the demand, the consumption."

Ivory tusks are displayed after the official start of the destruction of confiscated ivory in Hong Kong on May 15, 2014. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Steps have been taken to try to do that in China, including some high-profile campaigns that have featured celebrities. In one, China's most famous basketball player, retired NBA star Yao Ming, took to billboards and TV public service announcements to urge his native country to say no to ivory and rhino horn.

"He's been extremely outspoken about this issue," says Wall.

Efforts to target the illicit ivory trade chain have also been made, which the WWF sees as crucial.

"To counter poaching … you also have to counter illicit trade," says O'Croidain.

Those efforts can focus on ports such as Mombasa in Kenya, and Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar in Tanzania.

"You have to tackle the problem there as a straight-forward smuggling problem," says O'Croidain. "Similarly in southeast Asia, there are transit points where you can intervene."

Better monitoring

Other potential measures include increased monitoring of the existing elephant population, something Wall advocates and has been involved with through a high-tech Save the Elephants program that involves GPS satellite tracking collars.

He also sees a need for better wildlife protection programs involving the African communities where elephants roam, programs that would give residents economic options other than poaching.

In one case, some ex-poachers have been hired as wildlife rangers, complete with salaries they can live on.

"I think that is really a key thing that we develop human programs so that people don't feel the need to go out and poach elephants, and that they feel they can make a living in other ways."

No one is under any illusion, however, that any of this will be an easy task.

"It's a long-term process. It may be a generational process," says James Kinney, elephant program officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare

"That's why we take a multi-pronged approach because it doesn't seem elephants have generations to wait for the Chinese to stop consuming ivory."

The IFAW feels elephants "don't deserve to die for trinkets or for financial investments," Kinney adds.

"They're important on a number of levels, individually as sentient beings and as kind of mega-gardeners in the forests and savannahs where they live."