Ivory Trade: a History Drenched in Blood

By Klara Greyvensteyn

Illustrations by: Meagan Hsu


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Have you ever thought about how pearly white ivory might not be as pristine and untainted as it seems? From ivory necklaces to combs to household decor, people commonly take this luxury item for granted, but it’s backstory is seldom questioned. If we look more closely at its origins, we come to realize that it is, in fact, drenched in blood, not just animal blood, but also human blood. Ivory trade is an issue with heavy global significance, and its impacts extend to wildlife, endangered species, and ecosystems. With the shocking commonality of animal poaching in today’s world, it won’t be long until the elephant, an integral player in the African ecosystem, will become forever extinct. 


Elephants play an integral role in maintaining the ecosystem in Africa, and without them, forests would overtake the grasslands. They dig watering holes in the dry season, without which many animals would die of thirst. They are also highly intelligent and have a remarkable memory, in fact, their brains are very similar to humans. They are the only animal that mourns their dead, and can even suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. This means animal poaching doesn’t just impact elephant numbers but it also impacts elephants on an emotional level. When elephants see their own kind massacred, and they react the same way a human would to seeing others murdered. 


There have been numerous attempts to combat the ivory trading issue, but their indirect approach and lack of support means that ivory trading, unfortunately, is still widely prevalent in the modern world. Although its relative, animal poaching, is a commonly discussed issue, ivory trade, on the other hand, is seldom talked about.  A fact that seems to be neglected is that ivory trade and animal poaching go hand in hand, dating all the way back to the Roman Empire. Ivory trade is a problem that has been persistent for centuries, but it is yet to be seriously considered or solved. We can see from the history of ivory trade to how it impacts animals, and how it is relevant in Hong Kong. While ivory trading is an issue that’s normally pushed aside in current media,  its severity cannot and should not be downplayed. This article will seek to clarify the issue, establish its significance and suggest possible solutions to counteract it.      


Ivory trade, in its simplest form, is the poaching of animals, commonly rhinos and elephants but other animals as well, to obtain their ivory tusks. This is followed by the selling and trading of those tusks to make a profit. In actuality, poaching is highly illegal; ivory trade, however, is much more complicated. In short, ivory trade is illegal. More specifically, the international trading of ivory is banned but in some places, it is legal to buy ivory under certain exceptions. If the ivory is an antique and was carved before the international ban, it is still legal to sell it. If the ivory comes from legal stockpiles, it can still be sold. Here in Hong Kong, selling ivory will be illegal after 2021. The ban was announced in 2016 and people who sell ivory were given a five year grace period to get rid of all their ivory before the ban goes into effect. If one considers the ivory trade and animal poaching, the matter seems very simple at first, but if one really looks into the history of ivory trade and the effects of animal poaching, it’s a very complicated subject. Ivory trade has been in our history for years; the sell of ivory goes back to the Roman Empire, as well as the belief that ivory had healing properties. If one also looks at the ivory trade and animal poaching, we can see these are two very different things that are linked together. To better understand the issue, we need to see what ivory trade and animal poaching exactly is.


How did the history of ivory Trade lead us down towards the dire situation we face today? For hundreds of years, ivory had been sought after for its ease of carving and pearly white appearance. Ivory can be used for necklaces and combs and is often used in household decor from bowls to centerpieces. Ivory trade can be traced way back to the Roman Empire when the Romans imported ivory from Africa for statutes and sometimes furniture. The Romans even imported elephants for spectacles, but then eventually used them for combat later. The ivory that was imported to the Romans mainly came from the North African elephants, but when the species went extinct, ivory trade stopped for many centuries. (It’s still not fully agreed upon as to whether the North African elephants were a subspecies of African bush elephants or a separate species). Ivory trade then started again in the 800’s when traders in West Africa brought ivory along the trans-Saharan trade routes to the North African coast. Traders also brought ivory from the East in boats up the coastline to the Middle East as well as the markets and cities of north-east Africa. From there the ivory was taken to Europe or to Central and East Asia. But later Central and East Asia would start to get their ivory from Asian Elephants. In the 1400-1800 century, Portuguese navigators landed on the shore of West Africa and soon started participating in the ivory trade. Hunting on the west coast of Africa made the population of elephants decline, forcing people to move inland. Inland hunters and traders needed a way to move the ivory but because of the lack of rivers they could use and diseases, it was impossible to have livestock move the ivory , therefore the primary movers of ivory were people. So, while the demand for ivory went up, so did the demand for slaves. It may not be outwardly obvious, but the inhumane act of slavery is actually connected to ivory trade. Traders would go inland and hunt or purchase ivory along with slaves. They would make them carry the ivory down to the coast and then would sell the ivory and slaves to make a profit. During the 1800s and 1900s, European hunters started hunting elephants more and more as the demand for ivory went up. The number of elephants was declining and in 1900, many African colonies passed a law that limited hunting. In the 1960s, most African countries passed a law that had hunting completely banned or only allowed with a permit. But even with these laws in place, poaching of animals continued. The international trading of ivory was banned in 1975 for Asain elephant ivory and in 1990 for African elephant ivory. But even with all these laws in place, the poaching of elephants still blatantly continues on.


More elephants are killed in the world than born. In 1979-1987 the elephant population went from 1.3 million to 600,000, that’s roughly 700,000 elephants killed. After people saw how damaging ivory trade was, the national ban on ivory was made and the result was strongly positive. People stopped selling ivory, markets dried up, poaching decreased and the elephant population began to stabilize. But this didn’t last, and soon the demand for ivory picked up again, mainly in Asia, and elephant poaching started increasing again. A study shows that since January 2012, roughly 103,000 elephants have been poached for their tusks. Elephants are being hunted every day for their ivory , and die very painful deaths, with poachers normally shooting the elephants then while the wounded elephant is on the ground, gouge the tusks out of the elephants head leaving them to die. While numbers vary from source to source the estimated amount of elephants killed every day is 55-100 and the amount killed every year is 20,000-35,000 (and these numbers are not solid because they really depend on many variables but these are rough estimates) while these numbers are not solid and can vary from source to source, they still give you a pretty accurate idea of just how many elephants are killed. Ivory trade does not just affect African elephants but also Indian elephants as well.


The most common animal poached for ivory is African Elephants, although other animals are poached as well. Poaching an animal for its ivory mainly consists of going into a game reserve, tracking, killing, then harvesting the animal’s tusks. Animal poaching is highly illegal and has decimated an incomprehensible number of elephants in Africa. Although their horns are not made of ivory, rhinos are still sought after mainly in Asia because of a belief that they have healing properties. People in an attempt to stop rhinos being poached have started removing the horns from rhinos so they wouldn’t be of value to poachers. Some people have also considered doing this with elephant tusks as well but because of many reasons, people are unable to do so, mainly because removing the tusks is dangerous both for the people involved and the elephant. There are too many elephants, not enough people and not enough money. Another reason is that one-third of an elephant’s tusk inside the elephant’s head as a tusk is a really big tooth, so the poachers would most likely kill the elephant in the attempt of removing its tusk. Removing rhino horns also has its downsides. Elephants and rhinos are big animals, but they still manage to avoid being seen and take a long time to track down, so the process is hard work and takes a lot of time. Additionally, when poachers are tracking down rhinos and they finally find one just to see it had no horn, they still kill the animal anyway, so if people start cutting of elephant tusks it would likely end the same way for the elephant. Another reason people can’t remove the elephant’s tusk is because it is crucial for survival. For a while now, people have been trying to find another way to prevent people from poaching elephants, but none so far have really seemed to work. The question comes to this: Does there exist a tangible and effective solution to ivory poaching?  


The most straightforward answer to how we can put an end to this problem is to simply stop ivory trading. Though this answer may seem anticlimactic, it’s true. People often talk about saving the elephants and how volunteers are making huge impacts in Africa. People all over Africa are helping to save the elephants by raising awareness for charities, opening game reserves and trying to catch elephant poachers. But if ivory trade continues at its current rate, elephants are expected to go extinct in at least 10 years. This is not to discount the crucial work that volunteers do in Africa for the Elephants, but if we don’t stop the problem at its source all that work might amount to no tangible results. The problem can be likened to the case of a running tap. Imagine you came home to find that your tap was left running and your house was flooded. The work that people are doing to save elephants is like trying to clean up the water, whereas the smartest thing to do would be to shut the tap off first: to solve the source of the problem, which is ivory trade. 


Think about future generations only being able to reminisce back to the hypothetical existence of the elephant the way we can only imagine what dinosaurs or dodo birds look like.  The elephant, one of the integral parts of the African ecosystem, part of the big five (the big five are some of the most iconic African animals, including the elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, and rhino) might become a distant memory, never able to be fully appreciated by generations to come. 


Just try and picture an Africa devoid of elephants. As someone who has visited South Africa, the severity of the problem can be clearly seen. South Africa is filled with multitudes of elephants and rhinos, among a plethora of other types of wildlife. It is heartbreaking to think that future generations might never be able to see the spectacular animals that exist there today. It is not uncommon in Africa to stumble upon big elephant herds, where young elephants and their mothers can be seen. The young elephant often runs around, playing and interacting with other elephants in its herd. They appear so carefree and innocent, not knowing what could happen to them or their family. With the threat of ivory poaching, one can’t help but think how the young elephant could lose its mother, or possibly its entire herd. There are also elephants whose tusks almost reach the ground, and it is devastating to think that this animal could be killed for something that they need to keep them safe. 


Ivory trade might seem like a distant problem that none of us could ever solve, but in reality, it’s as simple as not buying ivory, or donating to help save elephants. This pressing problem is imminent and potentially dooming yet people still ignorantly refuse to act on it, despite having the power to act and knowing exactly what needs to be done. We simply cannot continue to stand idle and watch as an entire species is slaughtered.

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