For centuries, elephants have been exploited for ivory, as weapons of war, for ceremonial purposes, by the logging industry, and by zoos and circuses.
In the last century elephant populations massively declined due to habitat destruction, increased agriculture and the bloody ivory trade. Rampant ivory poaching from 1979 to 1989 halved Africa’s elephant population from 1.3 million to 600,000. Today numbers may be as low as 470,000.
After the 1989 ban the price of ivory crashed and markets in Europe and USA closed down. But some African countries called for a resumption of trade with Japan. In 1997, CITES* approved the sale of up to 60 tonnes of ivory from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to Japan. Many predicted a rise in poaching.
Poaching escalated and Born Free’s evidence showed at least 6,000 elephants were killed and 17,000kg of illegal ivory was seized by customs in 1998-1999. Born Free estimated this represented just 10-20% of the total slaughter. In 2000, CITES agreed ‘no more trade’, but in 2002 gave Botswana, Namibia and South Africa permission to sell stockpiled ivory to China and Japan, subject to certain conditions.
By 2008 these conditions had been met and Zimbabwe had been included as an exporting country. The four countries sold 105,000kg of ivory to China and Japan.
In 2010 proposals by Tanzania and Zambia asked CITES to weaken trade restrictions and sought approval for a one-off sale of over 110,000kg of ivory from government-owned stockpiles. This proposal was defeated. However, the poaching still continues.
1900 – 10 million
1979 – 1.3 million
1989 – 600,000
2007 – 470,000; IUCN¹ status: ‘Vulnerable’
1900 – 100,000
1995 – 50,000
2007 – 40,000 - 50,000 (note: this is considered by many scientists to be just a "crude guess" and the actual population may be much lower); IUCN¹ status: ‘Endangered’