The Ivory Trade


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 petitionsending an elephant facts E-card, and adopting an elephant.

Check out the timeline below to learn more.

Two baboons make their way through Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. Native to sub-Saharan Africa, they’re some of the largest monkeys in the world.
An elephant carcass found just outside of Tsavo. Elephants are heavily poached for their ivory tusks throughout Africa, and their populations are rapidly declining.
An elephant calf guzzles down milk at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. In order to grow into healthy adults, these babies need at least 18 liters of milk every day.
The sun rises over Tsavo National Park—Kenya’s largest, and home to 11,000 African Elephants.
A giraffe peers over a bush after hearing us drive by. Native to Kenya, these creatures are the tallest land mammals on the planet.
Orphaned elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust just outside of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. They’ve all lost their parents, many to poachers.
A group of school children eagerly meet an orphaned elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Schools come here frequently to learn about elephants and see first-hand one of the forgotten faces of the poaching crisis.
While out on safari in Tsavo East National Park, we come across an impala. Their horns can grow to several feet, and they can run as fast as 35 miles per hour.
A pair of monkeys. These mischievous creatures can be seen all over the place, and as we found out first-hand, they love to steal food.
A herd of zebras in Tsavo East National Park. These creatures are incredibly shy, and a rare sight in the park.
A zebra peers out of the bushes in Tsavo.
Birds cool off from the sub-Saharan heat at a watering hole in Tsavo.
A termite hill in Tsavo East National Park. In the park, they’re everywhere, and they’re huge.
A family of elephants rest in the shade in Tsavo East National Park.
A bull elephant — weighing thousands of pounds — flaps his ears to ward us off. After this picture was taken, he began to charge.
An exotic bird in Tsavo National Park. The park is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.
Shelby Holliday adjusts our camera, before we set off in the sub-Saharan wilderness.
A park ranger for the Kenya Wildlife Service. These brave soldiers risk their lives to protect Kenya’s elephants.
The bloated carcass of an elephant. It was killed by poachers with poison arrows all for its ivory. The tusks will go for thousands of dollars on the black market.
On our way to a kill site on the outskirts of Tsavo. The rangers here are heavily armed, in case they encounter a hostile poacher.
A look at how investigators in the U.S. are helping to find poachers and smugglers.
Tom Hanson examines the ivory trade, the toll it’s taking on the elephant population and what the profits it creates are funding.