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Will Destroying And Banning Ivory Save The Elephants?

Photo courtesy of Skip Russell via Flickr

Despite international bans on ivory trade, African elephants are in danger from illegal poaching and rising demand. 

It’s difficult not to love elephants. They are intelligent, beautiful, empathetic beasts, symbolic of good luck, wisdom, and strength to people from all over the globe.

Despite their reputation, which has been immortalized in literature and film by Twain, Orwell, Disney, and Suess, elephants are still over-frequently poached for their tusks — and that’s in spite of a 23 year-old ban on international ivory trade.

In June of 2015, the US is crushing over a ton of ivory in Times Square, NYC to send a clear message against ivory trafficking and poaching.

This is similar to Prince William having proposed  in 2014 to destroy the royal family’s prized ivory collection. President Obama has also prepared laws criminalizing buying and sellin19g of illegal ivory.

While it’s widely up for debate whether these actions themselves are reasonable or effective, the facts of elephant endangerment are not:

  • Of 400,000 African elephants living in the wild, up to 50,000 were killed in 2013, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency.
  • 2013 also saw the most illegal seizure of ivory in over two decades, a majority of which is sold in China, according to the BBC.
  • The illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007, according to Environment News Service.
  • Africa will lose one fifth of its elephants in the next decade if the poaching crisis is not stopped, according to a report (pdf) by the African Elephant Summit.

Why is ivory in high demand?

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Photo courtesy of USFWS Mountain Prairie via Flickr.

Demand for ivory, especially in Asia, has increased in recent years due in part to newly affluent Chinese consumers and an all-time high value of ivory, the Wall Street Journal says.

Increasingly sophisticated networks of criminal gangs make poaching easier and less likely to be thwarted by law enforcement, TIME World News reports. An investigation by the BBC also found that crackdowns on ivory actually make it more desirable to wealthy investors, and more profitable for sellers.

While the Chinese government hoped that 2008’s limited legalization of ivory trading would limit poaching, the effort backfired instead, increasing black market laundering proportionately. And it doesn’t help that prosecution of smugglers is rare, the Telegraph says, nor that ivory is deeply embedded in Chinese tradition.

But it’s not just China — in fact, the U.S. is right behind them as the second largest importer of illegally traded animals, where unlawful sales occur regularly under the cover of legal ivory market.

Will proposals and legislation changes by England, America, and China make a difference?

Opinions are very much divided on whether restrictions on trade and dramatic denouncements will lessen poaching, or only serve to increase the demand by driving prices up.

A ban on the selling of all ivory in the U.S. that cannot be proven legal (dating from before the 1989 ban) comprised part of the Obama administration’s 2014 national strategy on wildlife trafficking.

While many environmentalists see this as a milestone against elephant poaching, others argue that treating antique sellers like criminals will enrich illegal sellers and weaken conservation efforts.

And when Prince William stated that he would “like to see all the ivory owned by Buckingham Palace destroyed,” some saw this as a powerful symbol capable of spreading mass awareness, while others found the proposition wasteful and trite. The same goes for the US #IvoryCrush.

As for China, it has successfully conserved threatened animals before, such as the giant panda. Even more recently, media awareness and campaigns have changed public opinion on shark-fin soup. With enough awareness and cooperation, who’s to say they can’t do it again?

China certainly has incentive to turn things around. As the nation is investing heavily in Africa, it is likely in the government’s best interest to become a positive force of change, rather than a driver of extinction.

That goes for America, as well, which with enough effort could transition from part of the problem to part of the solution. After all, ivory keys can be replaced, but living and breathing elephants can’t be recreated out of plastic.

Want to help save the elephants? You can donate to the African Wildlife Foundation, Worldwide Life Fund, or the Wildlife Conservation Society

Originally published on February 25, 2014. 

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Jennifer Markert