They are among the largest land animals on the planet, are known for their intelligence and live in close-knit communities. They match monkeys and dolphins in terms of intelligence and complex social behaviour, and surprisingly have many similarities with humans. Yet elephants now threatened with extinction because of the popularity of the their tusks. As early as 1989, the United Nations banned hunting elephants, yet the ivory trade is still very much alive. How is that possible and what can we learn from this?
The killing of elephants and the ivory trade are simply prohibited, but in specifically for the African elephant this does not make any difference. In 10 years, the number of African forest elephants has diminished with as much as 62%. The average life expectancy has fallen from 70 years to 19 years for males and 21 years for females. The main cause of these dramatic figures: illegal poaching, particularly in Mozambique, Nigeria, Egypt, Gabon, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Poachers proceed according to a more or less fixed routine: the elephants are shot from a distance with illegal weapons. Then the tusks are removed and the animal is left for dead. The ivory finds its way mainly into China and Thailand, where it is made into jewellery or decorative objects. In the wake of the emerging Chinese middle class, for years now the demand for ivory has steadily increased. Ivory is 'white gold' and timelessly popular. According to the International Fund of Animal Welfare the Chinese ivory processing industry alone is worth 9 billion dollar annually. How can that be if it is clearly prohibited?
In 1989 the presidents of Kenya (Arap Moi) and the United States (Bush senior) initiated the trade ban on ivory, but this had all but the desired effect: immediately a lively black market was created. Next to that few world leaders saw eye-to-eye on the matter. In particular, the Zimbabwean President Mugabe felt that the agreement should be toned down, as elephants, according to him, were ‘an annoying pest’. The reason: elephants take up too much space and drink too much water.
Similarly, China, Thailand, Japan and Vietnam disagreed with the ban and objected. Following Japan’s example, China experimented with a legal, cheap ivory trade from 2004. Seemingly to halt illegal trafficking, but had the opposite effect: the prices exploded, demand continued to rise and both the legal and illegal supply increased.
In March 2013 representatives from 178 countries gathered in Bangkok to talk about endangered animal and plant species. The concerns for the illegal slaughter of 30,000 elephants annually were widely shared, but still this did not drive the participants into action: no sanctions will be imposed on countries that do not comply with the agreements. That is unfortunate but not unexpected: change always requires wide support, whether it concerns business problems or global problems. Support usually does not appear out of nowhere: at least sharing of a common interest should be acknowledged. This notion might spring to life under the influence of enlightened leadership, after which it needs maximum care and attention. In short, the green lobby still has a lot of work to do.
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