Animals & the Environment: Elephants and the Ivory Trade

by Kacey Barton

I remember the first time I saw an elephant in person. I was in the 3rd grade, and I was standing in front of the elephant exhibit at the Abilene Zoo. I had only seen these massive creatures on Animal Planet, their enormous trunks swinging from side to side, trumpeting, bull elephants fighting, calves racing around the golden savannas while their herds watched with a protective gaze. Seeing one in person was something else. Back then, I couldn’t have understood the size and power these animals possess.  Unfortunately, I also couldn’t have understood the ‘value’ that these incisors held with those who wished to make trinkets out of polished ivory.

Original art by Kacey Barton

Original art by Kacey Barton

I was recently tasked with creating a series of illustrations for a university course, for which I was able to choose the theme of. I chose “Endangered Animals” which also encompassed the effects of the ivory trade on elephants. In the illustration regarding this topic, I gained inspiration from research I’d done into exactly what harvesting the ivory entailed.

What I found in my research was gruesome. I had lived up until this point never truly knowing what harvesting of ivory truly meant. Elephant tusks contain blood vessels and nerves within them, like a human tooth, and are used for foraging, clearing brush, defending themselves or fighting for mating rights, and more. For poachers, these tusks mean profit. A variety of weapons are used to kill elephants, including poisoned arrows and spears, guns, and poisoned food. When the elephant dies, the poachers swoop in and generally hack out the tusks, which extend into the skull, leading to a barbaric scene for wildlife rangers to come across later.

Although it is impossible to give an exact number of how many elephants are left, the International Union for Conservation of Wildlife and World Wildlife Fund in the Great Elephant Census gave a rough estimate in 2016 of only 352,000 elephants left in Africa. What is even more disheartening is that if the current trend continues with the illegal poaching of elephants for their tusks, only 160,000 elephants will be left by 2025, and local extinction will be imminent.

With the continuation of poaching, so continues the efforts for organizations to combat the steady decline of the world’s elephants. The first ban to go into effect on the commercial trade of ivory began in 1989 under the African Elephant Conservation Act. Since then, there have been highs and lows within the fight to conserve elephants. Recently this week, one such high was in Hong Kong where more than $9 million in ivory was seized. The ivory was found in a shipment headed to Malaysia that was falsely labelled “frozen fish”. Hong Kong looks to ban the trade of ivory locally by 2021, just as China had announced on the 30th of December in 2016. The issue still lies with the illegal trade of ivory, which is causing the worst of it for elephants.

Out of all the photos I viewed, the one that stuck with me the most was one of a collection of small elephant figurines carved out of ivory. These figurines were part of black market ivory seized in New York City in 2012, proving that the market for illegal ivory isn’t restricted to Asia; the illegal trade of ivory is booming all across the globe.

There are many ways that one can aid in the fight to stop ivory trade, and thus, the cruel fate many elephants today will be met with should the trade continue. Shunning any and all ivory, including legally sold antique ivory and supporting organizations that provide resources to help in the protection of the world’s remaining elephants such as the World Wildlife Fund, African Wildlife Foundation and the International Elephant Foundation is a good place to start. You can also spread the word about the struggle elephants are facing and how vital they are to our world as a whole.