Every year, tens of thousands of elephants are brutally killed for their ivory. Between 2008 and 2013, the estimated death toll ranged between 30,000 and 50,000 elephants per year. The slaughter is horrifying; ivory dealers employ and arm poachers, who in turn target entire herds of elephants, shooting them with automatic weapons and hacking off their tusks with axes and chainsaws.
These tusks are fed into the illegal international ivory trade which is controlled by highly organised criminal syndicates. This trade feeds demand for ivory products in Asia, Europe, USA and elsewhere, which continues to bankroll elephants’ destruction. Legal international sales of ivory in 1999 and 2008 added to the demand but also caused confusion among consumers (‘is ivory legal or not?’) and provided an avenue for criminals to launder illegal ivory into the black-market.
Tragically the ivory trade has a long and bloody history. Born Free helped ensure the first international ivory ban in 1989 and since then has campaigned tirelessly against attempts to reopen international trade as well as to bring an end to all domestic and legal trade. Born Free also investigates poaching, exposes illegal ivory smuggling and together with the SSN¹ Elephant Working Group works to increase protection for elephants from trade.
1989: Born Free and its supporters helped encourage CITES² to ban the international commercial ivory trade. The price of ivory crashed and markets in Europe and USA closed. The first symbolic ivory stockpile burn (12 tonnes) took place on 19th July 1989 in Kenya.
1999: despite Born Free’s best efforts, CITES approved the ‘one-off’ sale of almost 50 tonnes of ivory stockpiled by Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to Japan. Born Free predicted that poaching would continue. At least 6,000 elephants were killed and 17,000kg of ivory seized by customs. Born Free highlighted that this likely represented just 10-20% of the total slaughter and campaigned to ban the global ivory trade once more.
2000: CITES agreed ‘no more trade’ despite pressure from four southern African countries to sell more ivory to Japan. Born Free publishes the Stop the Clock report.
2002: Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa received permission to sell 60 tonnes of ivory stockpiles to Japan and China. Born Free and SSN estimated that at least 90,000kg of illegal ivory had been confiscated by customs between 1998 and 2002, i.e. 13,000 elephants slaughtered by poachers. And this is just the tip of the tusk, the small visible part of the global ivory racket.
2004: to Born Free’s dismay, CITES approved Namibia’s proposal for ‘non-commercial’ (tourist) trade in worked ‘ekipas’ (cultural ivory carvings). Born Free publishes The Tip of the Tusk report, followed by two further updates in 2006 and 2007.
2007: the stockpile sales approved in 2002 were expanded from 60 tonnes to over 105 tonnes. A nine-year moratorium on international ivory sales by Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa was adopted. This moratorium came into effect immediately after the 2008 ‘one-off’ sale.
2008: the auctioned sale of over 105 tonnes of ivory from Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa to China and Japan took place.
2009: Tanzania and Zambia submitted proposals seeking to exploit a loophole in the 2007 moratorium agreement. They were seeking to reduce the trade restrictions on their elephant populations which would allow them to trade in over 110 tonnes of ivory.
2010: Born Free played a key role in successfully defeating Zambia and Tanzania’s proposals to reduce protection for their elephant populations and sell ivory at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES. More here: Victory for Africa’s elephants.
2011: in July Kenya burned 4.8 tonnes of ivory seized by the Lusaka Agreement Task Force in Singapore in 2002. This not only kept the ivory out of the illegal market but also ensured that this ivory could never be made available for any potential future legal trade. More here: Elephants' Graveyard Offers Hope to the Living.
2012: Gabon burned 4.8 tonnes of ivory. More here: Gabon’s Ivory Goes Up in Smoke.
2013: the USA and Philippines crushed their ivory stockpiles. The Clinton Global Initiative Elephant Partnership called for the establishment of internal ivory market moratoriums as a key objective to help stop the catastrophic population decline seen in recent years. Will Travers’ personal perspective: Ivory Crisis.
2014: a number of key countries implicated in the ivory trade destroyed either all or a portion of their ivory stockpiles. The UK Government hosted a High-Level Meeting on Illegal Wildlife Trade which led to a number of key commitments impacting elephants. More here: Global Leaders Tackle Wildlife Crime/ Ministerial Statement
2016: CITES CoP 17 (24th Sept -5th Oct). Despite the 183 Parties to CITES failure to put African elephant populations on Appendix 1 of the Convention, there were important acheivements for elephants at CoP17. Countries were encouraged to close down domestic ivory markets, and 'dispose' of ivory stockpiles.
Any discussion of a future trade in ivory was terminated. Trade in live elephants, although not prohibited, will in future be subject to far greater controls - including a registration process.
Finally, Botswana, the country that is currently home to 1/3 of Africa's elephants, declared unilaterally that it would treat its elephants as if they were on Appendix 1 (no trade!) from now on.