The African elephant — an intelligent and social animal — once thrived across its continent, particularly sub-saharan Africa, with a population between 3 and 5 million. For centuries, people have been using its ivory tusks to create sculptures, carvings and practical items such as tools and weapons. But with the rise of industrialization, followed by globalization, consumer demand for exotic ivory swelled, and halfway through the 20th century, the species’ population began a rapid decline. (A similar plight has been seen with the Asian elephant.)
As the traumatic effects of the ivory trade were acknowledged, governments began taking steps to reduce elephant poaching, including restrictions on buying and selling ivory. Unfortunately, as these practices became illegal and organizations worked to protect elephants, the demand — and monetary value — of ivory skyrocketed.
Today, despite being illegal in many places, you can find souvenir shops stocking ivory figurines and jewelry throughout the world, including the United States. To feed this global demand, an elephant is killed approximately 15 minutes, and rangers who protect elephants on African wildlife reserves also lose their lives. Ivory trade has become so lucrative — a billion dollar industry — that powerful crime organizations remain essentially undeterred, and lone poachers continue their work to support their families.
The once-healthy population of elephants on the continent of Africa has been slashed to approximately 600,000, and they are in danger of becoming extinct within the next decade. But hope lies in organizations like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, who are working to save orphans whose mothers have been poached. Without mothers, the babies typically only survive a few days. Although rehabilitating young elephant calves can take years — and a lot of money — they can be prepared emotionally and physically to survive on a wildlife reserve once again.
In addition to restrictions and enforcement on illegal ivory trade, awareness of the effects is key in combating the demand. Children in China are doing what they can, signing petitions and writing letters about the elephant crisis, while celebrities like Jane Goodall, Leonardo Di Caprio and Dave Matthews are speaking out publicly. There are also several ways you can make an impact, including signing a petition, sending an elephant facts E-card, and adopting an elephant.
Check out the timeline below to learn more.