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There’s an Elephant in your Piano

“The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?”

– David Attenborough

Elephants are ‘considered to be one of the world’s most empathic species.’ They grieve, and will ‘bury their dead and pay tribute to the bodies and to the bones.’ They even carry their deceased infants in their trunks for weeks, and revisit carcasses repeatedly. They can also feel joy, and enthusiastically celebrate the birth of new babies in their herds. In some cases, they share their joy with humans. For example, Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, conservationist and a ‘leading voice for elephants’, dedicated most of her life to raising orphaned elephants and reintegrating them into nature. She shared that sometimes the elephants would revisit the humans who reared them, to show them their wild-born babies. Elephants can also get distressed and use their trunks to reach out and give each other a gentle touch of consolation.

These beautiful creatures that are capable of feeling such complex and deep emotions, are mercilessly hunted and slaughtered for their ivory. It is estimated that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes. It is also estimated that, in the last century, we have lost ‘over 80% of the planet’s African elephants.’

“Elephants have long term supportive bonds between family members, so it’s not just a species facing extinction, it’s massive individual suffering.”

– Jane Goodall, Wildlife Conservationist

The History of the Ivory Trade

At the time of the Roman Empire, ivory exported from Africa mainly came from North African elephants. Also used in the Roman Coliseum fights, the elephants were hunted to extinction around the 4th century C.E., after which the ivory trade declined in Africa for many centuries – before picking up again nearing the 800s.

From the 15th through the 19th centuries, ivory was perceived as a luxury item, both in Africa and parts of Europe. Foreign kings commissioned ivory carvings, and as trade increased, the carvers even extended their audience to foreigners, carving souvenirs that they could buy.

Ivory also became popular for mass-produced objects, for example, piano keys, knife handles and jewellery. And although plastics replaced much of the utilitarian functions of ivory in the beginning of the 20th century, the demand for ivory continued to increase internationally. Now – the rate at which elephants are hunted are far higher than the rate in which they could ‘naturally reproduce.’ Between the years 1979 and 1989, it is estimated that the number of African elephants plunged from 1.2 million to 600,000.

The Ban

In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), made the long-awaited decision to ‘ban international trade in African elephant ivory.’ Following the ban, the demand for ivory did drop to ‘a historic low’ with shops in Hong Kong closing down, and many African governments providing positive reports stating that the ban had been successful. Unsurprisingly, the success was later undermined by countries such as the United States, Japan, and China who ‘continued to allow the legal trade of ivory within their own borders’, keeping the practice alive.

In fact, a 2008 study stated that the United States found that almost one-third of ivory items being sold in the U.S. may have been illegally imported. Further, in China, demand for ivory had skyrocketed, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare discovered that the government registration system, set up to ensure that smuggled ivory would not mix with their legal trade, was poisoned by fraud and abuse.

Additionally, CITES also approved one-off sales of ivory, for example, from ‘Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to Japan in 1999’ and then again to Japan and China in 2008. Many people in China called the arrival of the 62 tons of ivory the “resurrection” of Chinese ivory carving art.

According to TRAFFIC, since the ban, ‘2011 was the worst year on record’ for elephant poaching. It was revealed in a joint report by four international conservation organisations that in 2011 alone, 17,000 elephants were killed. These elephants lived in sites which were monitored through CITES-led Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants programme, which hold roughly 40% of the total elephant population in Africa.

Only elephants should wear ivory.”


Where We Stand Today

In 2017, China banned domestic trade of ivory. Since this ban, the demand for ivory has continually decreased, and recent studies show that it is at its lowest level. The ivory ban in China is a “game-changer” as Chinese consumers were one of the main drivers of the trade. WWF even tracked the activity of black markets and found that the prices of ivory in China had dropped. However, interest grew within the group of people who ‘regularly travel outside mainland China.’

Many countries, including China, also set piles of ivory ablaze, or crush them to dust. This is a way to send the message that ivory ‘has no value and that its trade should be banned.’ The world’s largest ivory burning event took place in the Nairobi National Park in Kenya, on April 30th in 2016. The 105 tons of elephant tusks and 1.35 tons of rhino horns represented 8,000 elephants and over 300 rhinos. Alongside a plethora of organisations and high-ranking individuals that were present for the event, the Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Ali Bongo Ondimba also attended.

International support to end the illegal trading of ivory is arguably stronger today than ever before, and the statistics and research present that the demand for ivory is a great deal lower than previous years. But it isn’t over. There are still active efforts and reports of law enforcement agencies having to shut down high-profile wildlife traffickers. The networks still exist, and the numbers are not always recorded.

Elephant populations are still plummeting. They are constantly hunted and harmed. It started off with poaching, and evolved to the stage where elephant ivory was used for white piano keys. If it isn’t poaching – then it’s jaw bombs. These detonate when bitten, and if the elephant survives the explosion, they’re guaranteed a painful death either through starvation or dehydration as they can ‘no longer eat or drink.’ If it’s not jaw bombs, it’s electrocution. If it’s not electrocution, it’s people hunting them for fun, or its poison, or maybe even a little problem called climate change. Some of these problems are easier to deal with than others, and controlling the ban on the ivory trade has been one which seems to have had a positive change. As long as efforts do not cease – we can tackle each problem, and then maybe we won’t be responsible for wiping out such an incredible species.

“Elephants can read humans’ hearts.”

  • Benjamin Kyalo, project manager at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust


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