The ivory trade since 1950

The recovery of elephant populations across Africa during the first half of the twentieth century only set the stage for the revival of the ivory trade. The export of raw ivory from Africa climbed steadily from 204 tonnes in 1950 to a peak of 1,164 tonnes in 1980 (fig. 8.12). The ivory trade was back with a vengeance. This time, the indiscriminate slaughter of African elephants (fig.

Figure 8.12

Ivory exports from Africa during 1950-2000. (From Barbier et al. 1990. Reproduced with permission granted by Earthscan, Kogan Page, U.K.) In 1997, a onetime export of 60 tonnes was permitted by CITES.

Figure 8.12

Ivory exports from Africa during 1950-2000. (From Barbier et al. 1990. Reproduced with permission granted by Earthscan, Kogan Page, U.K.) In 1997, a onetime export of 60 tonnes was permitted by CITES.

8.13) set off tremors across the global conservation community that eventually saw a complete ban on international trade in ivory being imposed in 1989.

The trade in ivory since 1950 and its impact on African elephant populations have been analyzed in detail, sometimes with diametrically opposite conclusions and recommendations. Two individual studies in 1979, one by Ian Parker and another by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, presented very different perspectives of the trade and its role in the decline of the African elephant. The gathering momentum toward an international ban on the ivory trade provided the impetus for an Ivory Trade Review Group; its proceedings, with input from several authors and viewpoints, were compiled in 1989. The following year, Edward Barbier and colleagues, part of the earlier review, published their own economic analysis of the ivory trade; I referred extensively to their analysis for this summary.

By the late 1970s came the realization that the ivory trade could again be decimating Africa's elephant populations. By 1975, the annual export of ivory

Figure 8.13

An African elephant poached for its ivory in the Tsavo National Park, Kenya. Both male and female elephants are slaughtered for tusks in Africa. (Photo courtesy of Paula Kahumbu.)

Figure 8.13

An African elephant poached for its ivory in the Tsavo National Park, Kenya. Both male and female elephants are slaughtered for tusks in Africa. (Photo courtesy of Paula Kahumbu.)

had climbed to about 600 tonnes, and this jumped to 934 tonnes the next year. In 1977, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who had been carrying out continent-wide surveys of the status of elephants, was the first to raise the alarm over the enormous numbers that may have been involved in the trade. Two years later, he made an estimate of between "50,000 to well over 100,000" elephants a year contributing to this volume of ivory. Given the continental estimate of 1.34 million elephants in 1979, it was clear that such offtake, especially the higher numbers, would send elephant populations on a downhill course.

Ian Parker and Esmond Martin disputed this view based mainly on two points. As opposed to a mean tusk weight of 4.8 kg used in Douglas-Hamilton's analysis, Parker and Martin claimed a much larger weight of 9.7 kg based on customs records in Hong Kong and Japan. This obviously halved the estimate of elephants contributing a particular volume of ivory. Further, they assumed that at least 20% of the ivory came from elephants that died of natural causes. Putting all these together, Parker and Martin estimated that fewer than 40,000 elephants were killed for the ivory trade each year, and this harvest was sustainable provided that the species' range did not shrink further due to human expansion.

Subsequent events and more objective data coming out of the African range states and the trade supported the more alarmist view. Computer-based modeling implicated the ivory trade in elephant population decline. One such model by Tom Pilgram and David Western used data from tusk sizes in the trade to age elephants and concluded that these represented selective hunting of a relatively young population (see chapter 7). Douglas-Hamilton came back strongly in a 1987 article summarizing key elephant population trends across the continent, highlighting the influx of arms and consequent breakdown in law and order and presenting new data from the trade that suggested higher offtake of elephants. A key observation was that mean tusk weights for imports by Hong Kong during 1979-1983 collected by the IUCN's Wildlife Trade Monitoring Unit was only 5.4-5.8 kg, while the Japanese imports also showed a decline in mean weights, from 16.3 kg in 1979 to 9.7 kg in 1982. He summarized his arguments against the Parker and Martin assumptions as "being based upon an illusion of accuracy of ivory trade records, an ignorance of elephant trends then current, and optimistic assumptions about elephant numbers" (p. 22). The ivory trade data provided only minimal estimates of elephant mortality due to ivory poaching. Proclaiming that "elephants are not beetles" (a phrase borrowed from David Western), Joyce Poole and Jorgen Thomsen also presented data on declining tusk weights during 1979-1988, skewed sex ratios in poached populations, and arguments based on disruption of the social fabric of elephant society by poaching to bolster the case against the trade.

Incorporated into a computerized database, the continuing surveys of the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group during the 1980s clearly pointed to rapidly declining elephant populations over large parts of their range. From the 1979 estimate of 1.34 million or an improved 1981 estimate of 1.19 million, the African elephant declined to an estimated 0.62 million by 1989.

While precise figures could be questioned, there was no disputing the marked decline in populations. Eastern and Central Africa were the hardest hit by the ivory poaching wave. During 1981-1989, the elephant population of Kenya declined from 65,000 to 16,000 individuals, while in neighboring Tanzania, this dropped from 204,000 to 61,000. Uganda's elephants had already been nearly wiped out during the internecine strife of the 1970s. Other countries, such as Sudan and Somalia, also suffered catastrophic declines, the former more significant in numbers. The East African elephant declined by 75% over this decade. In Central Africa, the decline seemed even more catastrophic in countries such as Zaire (from 376,000 in 1981 to 112,000 in 1989), while the Central African Republic also was hit. The apparent population increases in Gabon and Congo were due to better census techniques being applied in the rain forests rather than any real increase. The scattered West African elephant populations, while insignificant in relation to those of other regions, also suffered from poaching. Southern Africa also experienced rampant poaching during the same time in Zambia (160,000 to 32,000) and Mozambique (55,000 to 17,000).

Countries such as Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe represented the only silver lining in the otherwise gloomy African scenario. These countries continued to maintain stable elephant populations or even registered real increases during the decade of the 1980s, a point that was to be a major defense used by these southern African countries to oppose the subsequent international efforts to completely choke the trade in ivory in a desperate attempt to halt the poaching wave.

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