Most of the illegal ivory sold around the world comes from elephants that have been recently killed. It's not coming from old stashes of ivory, but from elephants that have been poached within the last few years, according to researchers.
Typically, authorities wouldn't know when the ivory was poached, but with new technology researchers used carbon dating to study hundreds of samples of ivory confiscated from around the world. The analysis found that most of the ivory came from elephants killed less than three years ago.
Among savanna-dwelling African elephants, populations are declining by about 8% per year, according to the Great Elephant Census, including a 30% drop between 2007 and 2014. Similarly, the number of African elephants living in forests dropped an incredible 62% from 2002 to 2013. These deaths, notes Smithsonian Magazine, are "intimately linked with the illegal global trade in ivory."
This suggests the poaching crisis may be even more dire than previously thought.
In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the international commercial trade of African elephant ivory, except under a few rare circumstances. In the same year, the U.S. Congress passed the African Elephant Conservation Act (AECA), banning the importation of ivory from African elephants. Since then, the U.S. commercial ivory market has virtually collapsed.
That’s not the case in Asia, however. As much as 70% of the illegal ivory currently being plundered is being routed to China. Revered for millennia as a rare, status-boosting luxury item, ivory has long been out of reach for most. But as China’s economic boom created a vast middle class, many new customers entered the market, which elevated the price of ivory to a staggering $1,000 per pound on the streets of Beijing. The tusks of a single adult elephant can be worth more than 10 times the average annual income for an African worker.
The lust for ivory and the situation in Africa have created what may be the greatest percentage loss of elephants in history. Many fear African elephants won't survive.
What can we do?
If you’re a mercenary, you can strap on your Rambo gear and go to Africa to fight warlords and poachers. If you’re in China and purchase ivory objects, you can decide to stop. But what about the rest of us? None of us can single-handedly stop the ivory trade, but we are not helpless — as much as it may feel like it. Here are six actions we can take to support these grand creatures.
1. Obviously, don’t buy ivory.
Or sell it, or wear it. New ivory is strictly banned, but antique ivory can be legally available for purchase. (The regulations are complicated; this is a good overview.) Ivory has traditionally been used for jewelry, billiard balls, pool cues, dominoes, fans, piano keys and carved trinkets. Shunning antique ivory is a clear message to dealers that the material is not welcomed, and it's an easy way to show your solidarity with the elephants.
2. Buy elephant-friendly coffee and wood.
Coffee and timber crops are often grown in plantations that destroy elephant habitats. Make sure to buy Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified timber and certified fair trade coffee.
3. Support conservation efforts.
If only we could all be Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey, and move to the jungle or plains and thoroughly dedicate our lives to wildlife. Alas, for most of us that’s the stuff of daydreams. In the meantime, we can support the organizations that are actively committed to elephant preservation. There are many, but here are a few:
- International Elephant Foundation
- Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
- African Wildlife Foundation
- Amboseli Trust for Elephants
4. Be aware of the plight of captive elephants.
Historically, zoos and circuses have offered elephants a life of, basically, indentured servitude. Fortunately, the zoo industry is starting to wake up and is beginning to develop more elephant-friendly environments, yet they have a long way to go. Circuses, even further. Make a difference by boycotting circuses that use animals, and by boycotting zoos that offer insufficient space to allow elephants to live in social groups, and where the management style doesn’t allow them to be in control of their own lives. See ElephantVoices for more information.
5. Adopt an elephant.
Who wouldn’t want to take home a cute elephant, protect it from the bad guys, and raise it as their own? OK, so that’s unrealistic, but there are organizations that offer elephant adoptions so you get cute pictures of "your" elephant, and they get funding for their elephant conservation efforts. World Wildlife Foundation, World Animal Foundation, Born Free and Defenders of Wildlife all have adoption programs and are good places to start looking for that special pachyderm.
6. Get involved with Roots & Shoots.
Founded in 1991 by Dr. Jane Goodall and a group of Tanzanian students, Roots & Shoots is a youth program created to incite positive change. There are hundreds of thousands of kids in more than 120 countries in the Roots & Shoots network, all working to create a better world. It’s a great way to get youth involved in conservation and pursue careers to help elephants and other wildlife.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in September 2012 and has been updated with new information.