History of the ivory trade with special reference to Africa

Ivory has been treasured since ancient times for its unique qualities. People of the Gravettian culture of Europe used mammoth ivory during the late Pleisto cene to make bracelets, while those of the Magdalenian culture fashioned it into figurines. In more historical times, native peoples have used elephant ivory to express art in the form of simple carvings or jewels. It is difficult to estimate how much of this ivory came from animals that died naturally as opposed to those deliberately killed for tusks (it is known that Thutmose III of Egypt "hunted one hundred and twenty elephants for their tusks" in about 1464 b.c. in Syria, and personally engaged the largest elephant to "cut off his trunk while he was alive" [St. Aubyn 1987, p. 36]). Ivory also always has been considered a luxury and a symbol of wealth. The decorated ivory coffers of Tutankhamen's Egypt or the great ivory throne made by King Solomon are probably good examples not only of this luxury demand, but also of the ancient trade in this substance.

Over the centuries, the trade in ivory has taken various twists and turns as the exploited elephant populations declined, as the demand for ivory changed with the economic prosperity of consuming societies or nations, and with the waxing and waning of the conservation ethos. Although detailed documentation of the ivory art is available, a comprehensive account of the historical trade in ivory is yet to be written.

Tusks are known from early dynastic Egypt. The Egyptian pharaohs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries b.c. hunted elephants, presumably Asian, along the Euphrates River. Egypt also sourced its ivory from lands bordering the Upper Nile. There is a record of Egypt importing 700 tusks from Somalia in 700 b.c. The use of tusks and ivory articles in ancient Greece and Rome has also been well described in several tomes on art. The rise of the Roman Empire and its demand for ivory seems to have exhausted supplies from northern Africa. Thus, Pliny wrote in a.d. 77 that, "An ample supply of tusks is now rarely obtained except from India, all the rest of the world having succumbed to luxury." This also was probably a temporary phenomenon; it is doubtful that Asian elephant populations with only the male sporting tusks could have supplied large volumes of ivory for any length of time.

In the Indian subcontinent, ivory articles are known from the Harappan culture of the third millennium b.c. According to historian E. H. Warmington, India itself imported ivory from Ethiopia from the sixth century b.c. onward. It is unclear how much of this ivory was in transit further East or sent back to the West as raw or worked ivory. At the same time, ivory from Indian elephants was certainly exported to the West. There is a reference to the best-quality ivory originating in the region of Orissa. The earliest known ivory carvings in China are from the Shang-Yin period of 1783-1123 b.c. From the second century b.c., however, China seemed to meet most of its requirements for ivory from other regions in Asia, undoubtedly some of this being of African origin. Thus, both ancient India and China made extensive use of ivory, initially from their own sources and later through imports from Africa.

During the early centuries of the Christian era, there seems to have been a relative lull in the use of ivory in the West compared to earlier periods, a reflection of the decline of the Mediterranean powers and their source elephant populations. The Islamic expansion during the seventh and eighth centuries a.d. encouraged Arab traders to send ivory into Europe. Ivory seems to have been used mainly for religious purposes at this time. The Portuguese began to explore the West African coast during the latter part of the fifteenth century. One of the commodities obtained from the natives to take home was ivory. By the sixteenth century, the English also began purchasing ivory in sizable quantities from Guinea. Clive Spinage estimates that, during a.d. 1500-1700, about 100-120 tonnes of ivory may have left Africa on average every year. It must also be noted that, during the latter part of this period, India alone imported 272 tonnes per year, no doubt for trading further to the West and the East.

It was during the seventeenth century that ivory exploitation intensified over a large area of Africa. This was the period of colonial expansion by the European powers. The exploration of Africa and southern Asia was accompanied by a thirst for resources to fuel the emerging industrial nations. Ivory was a much-sought-after commodity for knife handles, combs, toys, piano keys, billiard balls, furniture, or works of art. Native hunting tribes initially provided the ivory demand of the Europeans, to be supplanted later by white hunters and by organized slaughter. Big-game hunting by the colonialists provided trophy-size ivory, adding to the romance of the quest for white gold, a cultural phenomenon interpreted as a contemporary version of ritualized killing (see chapter 2). Hunting was not confined only to shooting large animals for tusks. It extended to more intensive slaughter of elephants, ostensibly to control crop depredation. Thus, the Hunt also served to appease the native people by controlling animals dangerous to their lives and livelihoods. The ivory trade was also inextricably linked to the infamous slave trade in Africa.

The trade in ivory can be reconstructed from the perspective of the primary exporting nations, from the records in entrepots, or from those of the importing or consumer nations. This is not an easy task given the poor quality or absence of records and the complex entanglement of imports and re-exports. From an ecological perspective, the most important statistics are those pertaining to the number, sex, and age of elephants killed for the trade. Clive Spinage has provided an overview of the trade for the period until 1950, which I summarize here. Beyond this period, a more detailed account based on other sources is needed.

The West African trade in ivory, patronized initially by the Portuguese, flourished until the middle of the seventeenth century, but totally collapsed by the mid-nineteenth century. In the meantime, the British and the Dutch also obtained some of their ivory from this region. The large elephant populations reported from the region of Ghana, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast also would have declined by this period. Regions further south along the coast or hinterland, such as Gambia, Luanda, and the Congo, continued to supply the trade during the nineteenth century. Toward the turn of the century, the volumes of ivory emanating from the Belgian Congo were especially large at 352 tonnes per year (during 1888-1909), representing about half of Africa's total exports at this time. Some of this ivory came from large animals, as indicated by the mean tusk weight of 30 kg during the year 1899; compared to this, the German Cameroons exported much smaller tusks from "young elephants." Spinage estimates that, between 1889 and 1950, about 550,000 elephants were killed in the Belgian Congo to supply these ivory volumes.

The East African trade was also dominated by the Portuguese from the sixteenth century until the nineteenth century, when it was taken over by the Arabs. Several ports along the coast, such as Mombasa, Kilwa, Sofala, Beira, and Delagoa Bay channeled supplies to Europe. Some, like Kilwa, which supplied the Portuguese, dried up by the early sixteenth century; Selago Bay, patronized by the English, ceased trade by 1680, implying reductions in hinterland elephant populations. One hundred years later, the trade at Kilwa had revived with links to Yaoland. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Mozambique had emerged as the leading center of the ivory trade, with an annual turnover of 150-180 tonnes, about 65%-70% coming from the Yao. The export figures for 1759-1761 suggest a total of anywhere from 11,500 to twice this number of elephants killed over these 3 years. The trade continued to flourish with the Yao, Marawi, and Lenje tribes hunting elephants around the lower and middle reaches of the Luangwa River. The pricing policies of the Portuguese, however, saw a gradual shift in the trade out of Mozambique to Kilwa and Zanzibar during the later part of the eighteenth century. A correction in 1793 by the Portuguese contributed to a brief revival, with a peak of 189 tonnes exported that year, only to fall back to nearly half that by 1801 and to 58 tonnes by 1817.

By the early nineteenth century, the East African ivory trade shifted further north along the coast to ports such as Mombasa and Zanzibar. Some of this ivory was destined to ports in the Indian west coast en route to Great Britain or China (fig. 8.11). The Wakamba and the Maasai were two tribes supplying the ivory from their lands in eastern Africa. The ivory trade from East Africa seemed to have peaked during 1830-1856. In 1849, Zanzibar exported 297 tonnes, half of this to India. The average tusk weights recorded at Bombay (now Mumbai) suggest that these represented about 19,000 elephants. In 1856, the total exports from East Africa were estimated at 385 tonnes. A notable feature of this ivory was the average tusk weights, with tusks weighing 45 kg (100 pounds) being "common" and those 80 kg (175 pounds) were "not so rare." Obviously, hunting had taken its toll, perhaps the final one, of the magnificent bull elephants of Africa. In recent times, the average weight of 68 kg for each tusk sported by the legendary bull Ahmed in Kenya's Marasbit National Park was the exception rather than the rule.

A sharp rise in the price of ivory during 1856-1857 saw Arab traders rushing into the region. Soon, a very large number of firearms entered East Africa, further stimulating the hunt for ivory. Zanzibar exported 222 tonnes in 1889 and continued this with an annual average of 180 tonnes until the end of the century. The 40,990 tusks exported during 1893-1894 weighed 351 tonnes. Thus, at least 10,000 elephants were contributing to the trade from the region each year, presumably most of them having been hunted. Apart

Figure 8.11

Graph of annual import of African ivory by (a) India during 1803-1986 (data for 1887-1912 are incomplete, but imports of over 1,000 tonnes were recorded during the years 1896, 1887, and 1904-1905) (based on Martin and Vigne 1989) and (b) Great Britain during 1771-1918 (based on Spinage 1994; reproduced with the permission of A & C Black Publishers, London).

Figure 8.11

Graph of annual import of African ivory by (a) India during 1803-1986 (data for 1887-1912 are incomplete, but imports of over 1,000 tonnes were recorded during the years 1896, 1887, and 1904-1905) (based on Martin and Vigne 1989) and (b) Great Britain during 1771-1918 (based on Spinage 1994; reproduced with the permission of A & C Black Publishers, London).

from Zanzibar, several less-important centers traded in ivory. Taroba in Tanganyika was one such center trading in tusks supplied by the Wanyamwezi tribe. On localized scales, the supplies were exhausted as elephant herds diminished over eastern Africa.

The exploitation of northern Africa, particularly the Sudan and northwest Uganda, was also in progress from the middle of the nineteenth century. This ivory was channeled largely through Khartoum. From 1853 to 1879, an annual average of 148 tonnes was exported from Khartoum to a single purchaser, such volumes falling to 42 tonnes by 1888 and 20 tonnes by 1905. Amid this gloom, there is a hint of conservation efforts by King Kabarega, the young ruler of Bunyoro (in Uganda), who in 1872 imposed a prohibition, with the death penalty for violators, on the free trade of ivory that the explorer Samuel Baker was trying to promote. Five years later, however, two Arabs managed to penetrate this market, but the trade seems to have been relatively restricted.

In 1900, two travelers, Grogan and Sharpe, wrote that, "In the greater part of Africa the elephant is now a thing of the past; and the rate at which they have disappeared is appalling. Ten years ago elephants swarmed in places like British Central Africa, where now you will not find one" (quoted in Spinage 1994, p. 253). Although not entirely true, this was a fair statement of the elephant's status over much of Africa, particularly the savannas, at the entrance to the twentieth century. One exception seems to have been Uganda according to the estimate of 15,000 elephants made by these travelers for the Toro region alone. A trade in firearms by the Ethiopians and their use by the ivory traders began to wipe out the elephant herds during the first decade of the twentieth century.

The elephant populations of southern Africa had also been in decline since the seventeenth century. Common in 1652 around the Table Mountain when the early Dutch settlers landed at the Cape, elephants disappeared south of the Oliphants River by 1775. In the eastern regions of Cape Colony and Kaffararia, they continued to thrive until about 1820-1830; their decline may have been due to ivory being exported to Austria. During 1850-1875, an estimated annual average of 50 tonnes was being exported by South Africa, declining to only 4 tonnes by 1889. Further north in the region of Botswana, the elephant also was being hunted out. The famous explorer David Livingstone records that 900 elephants were killed near Lake Ngami in 1 year following his discovery of the lake in 1849. By 1903, the elephant had virtually disappeared south of the Cunene and Zambezi Rivers.

Recognizing the threat to African elephant populations from the slaughter for ivory, some of the colonial powers did introduce laws to regulate the trade. South Africa tried to regulate the trade from as early as 1822. German East Africa introduced regulations in 1896, making it illegal to possess tusks weighing less than 6.4 kg. The following year, Uganda and the East African Protectorate banned the killing of cow elephants and the possession of tusks less than 4.6 kg (increased to 13.6 kg in 1905 and again decreased to 5 kg in 1933). These measures, combined with the collapse of the slave trade, a fall in ivory prices and in demand for ivory during World Wars I and II, and possibly the greater effort needed to locate elephants, helped the populations to recover over most of eastern, central, and southern Africa during the first half of the twentieth century. The elephants of West Africa, however, were doomed to live as small populations in fragmented landscapes.

Estimates of the numbers of African elephants that contributed to the ivory trade during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are confounded by incomplete or duplicate records, fluctuating mean tusk weights, and distinct regional differences. Nevertheless, some crude estimates have been made. The 200 tonnes of ivory that left Africa each year during the eighteenth century may represent about 10,000 elephants (or 1 million over the century) if an average tusk weight of 10 kg is assumed. It is known that average tusk weights for exports from Mozambique varied from 16.4 kg in 1679 to 6.9 kg in 1852. If the lower figure is more representative for the century, then more elephants would have been involved in the eighteenth century trade.

One estimate for the period 1830-1930 is a similar minimum of 1 million elephants killed in Central, East, and West Africa. Spinage argues that the numbers could have been up to five times this figure considering that 60,00070,000 elephants per year were estimated for the trade during 1880-1894 and over 40,000 a year for the period 1895-1900. The true figure may lie between 1 and 5 million elephants because it cannot be assumed that the intensive exploitation that occurred toward the end of the nineteenth century also prevailed in earlier decades.

On the face of it, these numbers look large, but do not by themselves prove that African populations everywhere suffered catastrophic declines due to hunting. Reductions in habitat area and/or carrying capacity from agricultural expansions or degradation of vegetation, patterns of hunting, and the intrinsic capacity of the elephant populations to withstand these harvests in demographic terms also need to be considered. This calls for detailed and realistic population models (see chapter 7). There is no doubt that, on localized scales, many elephant populations were hunted to extinction in the quest for ivory during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The models, however, do not pin the entire blame on hunting. One such demographic model by E. J. Milner-Gulland and J. R. Beddington placed equal blame on reduction in carrying capacity as a major cause of elephant decline during the nineteenth century, although the story is different for the twentieth century.

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