Why ivory?

Ivory has been a sought after material for millennia. Archaeologists have unearthed carved mammoth ivory in caves throughout Europe from as far back as 40,000 years ago. These crude statues show how much ivory has been valued, and also give insight into the beginnings of figurative art. Over the last several hundred years the craft has been refined and very talented artists have learned how to produce intricately detailed carvings depicting deities, religious stories and natural scenes or animals, among others.

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Recent demand for elephant ivory in China is creating devastating effects on elephant populations. Throughout most of history ivory was reserved for the very wealthy. Today, China is experiencing increases in wealth, especially among the middle class. Ivory was once reserved for emperors but is now being demanded by millions of people in China who have disposable income to spend on carved ivory trinkets, chopsticks and statues.

Ivory is found in the teeth and tusks of different animals including hippopotamus, walrus, pig, elk, sperm whale, narwhal, rhino and most commonly, elephants. The scarcity of ivory makes this material extremely valuable, giving it the nickname “white gold”. Other materials have emerged as a substitute to ivory, but like gold, ivory’s value lies in it’s authenticity.

The 19th century began the demand for ivory as explorers from Western nations came to Africa, taking home the tusks of a killed elephant as proof of their expeditions. Ivory became a popular product in the Western world, used to make pool balls, jewelry, combs and piano keys.

United States President Theodore Roosevelt, circa 1909-19

United States President Theodore Roosevelt, circa 1909-19

Concerned for the declining numbers of elephants in Africa, a worldwide ban was imposed on the trade of ivory in the late 20th century and the Western world’s consumption of ivory slowed down. Meanwhile, Asian countries were experiencing an increase in wealth and their thirst for ivory increased. Chinese and Japanese consumers started demanding ivory for souvenir-style trinkets, beautiful pieces of art, religious statues, jewelry or simply purchased as an investment that can later be sold at a higher price.

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Obtaining ivory is a brutal task. Poachers typically gun down the animal and butcher an elephant’s face to remove the full tusk, often leaving the elephant to bleed to death. Another tactic poachers use is poison, sometimes lacing watering holes with cyanide and killing entire herds of elephants. The high price of elephant’s tusk is enough for poachers to do the difficult job. Elephants reside in countries where people face high unemployment, food insecurity and political instability, so for many Africans, the benefits outweigh the costs when it comes to harvesting ivory.

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Once ivory is extracted from the giants, poachers often sell the tusks to middlemen who supply the ivory to the black market. There are allegations that the trade of ivory is linked to other illegal activities including the trafficking of weapons and drugs. Many argue that the finances gained from the illegal trafficking of ivory is funding terrorist groups in parts of Africa, including al-Shabab, Lord’s Resistance Army and Boko Haram. Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argues that the ivory trade is a threat to global security because of its connections to illegal activity.

Elephants are found in fragile states, and many poor and corrupt nations do not have the ability to combat poachers. Resource competition using military politics often occurs in areas with abundant natural resources such as oil, gold, diamonds and timber. The demand for ivory is creating a resource war around the globe. There is speculation that some governments are involved poaching. A New York Times article from 2012 accused the Ugandan military of killing twenty-two elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba National Park using Ugandan military helicopters. There are even allegations that some government officials in China are purchasing ivory and using their political power to gain access to the illegal luxury good.