Science | Ivory trade signals the end of the elephant

Last week US officials grabbed headlines after destroying over five tonnes of illegal ivory, seized over the last 25 years since the global ban on ivory trade was implemented in 1989. The stockpile was said to be worth over £6bn and was estimated to have been the equivalent of around 2,000 adult elephants.

In 2012 alone over 35,000 elephants were killed for ivory demonstrating the extent of the problem that poaching has become. In the past, much of the demand came from South East Asian countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines for use in ornamental daggers. However, in recent times, much of the blame has fallen to China, Japan and Thailand, with the demand for illegal ivory doubling since 2007. In these countries ivory is used for a number of ceremonial and religious purposes as well as in traditional medicine. Large numbers of people still hold true to ivory’s supposed aphrodisiac properties. Over 40 per cent of illegal ivory is believed to end up in Japan, often passing through Hong Kong. In one arrest last month over 700kg of ivory was seized by Hong Kong customs.

Big steps have been made in the effort to tackle the ever-growing problem of ivory poaching. Numerous anti-poaching sections have been introduced into game reserves across Africa as well as funding from organisations such as Google, who in 2012 donated $5 million to the WWF to improve the methods already in place, such as remote aerial survey systems and wildlife tagging technology. On top of this, education programmes have been implemented and punishment for poaching has become more rigorous. However, the incentives for poaching are still vast. A poacher can make $2,000 from a small set of tusks, which is more than they would earn from two to three years of work.

Despite best efforts in Africa and the West, we are seeing little to suggest that we are any closer to a solution. With the number of wild elephants now at only 400,000, if poaching continues at the current rate, extinction could be on the horizon within the next 10 years. As we have seen in the US this week, the destroying of large stockpiles of ivory is a symbolic gesture to promote the fight against the illegal ivory trade. But will this gesture reach the countries demanding ivory such as China? Maybe there needs to be more emphasis on targeting the countries buying the ivory rather than those supplying it. Just last year, Yao Ming, a Chinese ex NBA star was involved in the launch of a major public awareness campaign targeting the consumption of ivory and rhino horn in China. This proved successful in a previous campaign where Ming was credited with the reduction of shark fin consumption in China by 50-70 per cent. Shark fin soup was removed from the menu at all state banquets following the campaign. This admirable example raises the question that rather than focusing the majority of efforts on combating ivory poaching at its source; should we be putting more emphasis on targeting the South East Asian market where the demand for ivory is coming from?


Jack Barrett

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