An elephant’s tusk is embedded several inches into its head. To extract it completely means hacking off a large chunk of the animal’s face, jaw and skull. It is possible to trim the tusks without killing it (circus elephants often have their tusks trimmed), but poachers are not compassionate, scrupulous or sophisticated about their business – they shoot them dead first.
According to the latest estimates, there are about 470,000 African elephants left in the wild, a figure that is barely more than a third of the number that roamed the continent back in 1979. In 1989, the elephant joined the most-endangered species list when numbers dropped by over a half in just a decade. This prompted a worldwide ban on ivory trade. Levels of poaching fell dramatically and black market prices of ivory slumped. Things looked good for a while, until, in 1999, an ‘experimental one-oﬀ’ sale of over 49,000 kilograms of ivory to Japan was approved. In 2002, this was followed by a further ‘one-oﬀ’ sale which eventually resulted in 105,000 kilograms of ivory being shipped to China.
These sales fueled an increasing appetite for ivory among the burgeoning Chinese middle class. Police and customs authorities around the world have managed to seize several large hauls of smuggled ivory in the last couple of years and poaching levels are now thought to be the highest they have been since the trade ban.
Rhino horn trafficking is an equally worrying issue. Government officials and conservationists are investigating all sorts of new tactics to clamp down on poaching, like using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), but the bottom line is that all anti-poaching methods are failing because they are expensive and demand is getting out of control. If we do not suppress the market demand for ivory, the African elephant could become extinct in the lifetime of our generation.
Apparently, according to a recent survey, 70% of the Chinese population do not believe that elephants are killed in order to supply them with the ivory products they cherish. They assume the tusks just fall out and get collected by traders. It’s time they were made to see the dead elephant in the room.