In the 1980s, the ivory trade was booming. Sellers, hunters and brokers made huge sums of money from what was a lucrative industry. Wealthy people across the globe had a taste for gleaming white jewellery, seemingly little concerned about the importance of the beautiful animals butchered to make it. Tragically, it took the halving of Africa’s elephant population for the world to sit up, take notice and act. The international trade in ivory was heavily restricted in 1990. Ever since, we have given ourselves a pat on the back and considered this ugly industry a relic of past, but we were wrong to do so.
According to Save the Elephants, a resurgent ivory trade in the 2000s saw a 62% fall in the world’s forest elephant population. The same organisation estimates that in the space of only two years between 2010 – 2012, over 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory. How, after the world rightly took action against such a horrific trade, have we repeated the mistakes of the past? The simple answer, for us in the West at least, is that the problem shifted from view.
East Asia became the new destination of choice for ivory traders, with Japan and Hong Kong amongst the world’s biggest consumers. China was also a major culprit until a recently introduced ban came into force with much fanfare. Demand from this new epicentre of the trade has effectively undone the progress made in allowing Africa’s elephant population to recover. It should be a source of great shame that as a global community we allowed this scourge to resurface. Even as action begins to undo the demand side, the supply side of the industry will take years to dismantle.
Poverty and corruption are major drivers of the trade, with high prices incentivising those from some of the world’s poorest communities to risk illegal poaching. Conservation efforts must be targeted at not only strengthening law enforcement but creating alternative financial opportunities for those tempted by poaching. Trying to view the ivory trade in isolation will only produce the same flawed approaches of the past. The circumstances driving those into poaching are the same as 40 years ago, the difference is we are no longer seeing the product end up on Western shores, and therefore no longer considering it our problem.
Targeting poaching communities for poverty eradication measures, providing further support for robust law enforcement, funding conservation initiatives to rebuild sanctuaries and, quite simply, keeping the topic in the spotlight are just some of the ways governments, charities and civil society must join forces to combat the elephant crisis. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels once again and think of the ivory trade as a relic of the past.