The Bloody History of the Ivory Trade

An elephant is killed every 15 minutes in Africa - more than 140,000 elephants have been poached between 2007 and 2014 - their bloodstained bodies discarded in the bush. Now it's time for the UK to take a stand for elephants and demonstrate global leadership by closing the UK’s domestic ivory markets. 

Save Me Trust is calling for the British government to close the antique and modern ivory markets and stop the transit of any ivory products through the UK before the International Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London in February 2018.

The UK should not have any part in the global illegal ivory trade. Introducing a ban sends a powerful message that the UK is committed to the protection of the world’s threatened elephants and reinforces the UK’s role as a global leader in tackling illegal wildlife trade.

The international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989 but in many countries, including the US, UK, and China, domestic trade is still allowed for antiques. However, the reality is that without stopping the ivory trade dead we will kill all the elephants and drive these incredible animals to extinction in our lifetimes.

China and the US have acted; we must too. Ivory trading ensures poaching continues. In the last year, we’ve seen huge steps in the battle against elephant poaching including China - which has the world’s largest ivory market - announcing they will ban domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017. Only the full closure of the UK’s domestic market will effectively contribute to international efforts to tackle the illegal ivory trade and protect elephants.

Anne Brummer, CEO of Save Me Trust, said “We have seen a never-ending ‘circle of destruction’ since the ivory stockpiles were sold off in 1998 and again in 2008, this has reignited the demand and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of elephants - it has to stop - we need to kill the trade before it kills all the elephants. I have been meeting with Michael Gove and am very impressed with his support and commitment on this issue and indeed other that we campaign for."

Save Me Trust’s proposal, given to Environment Minister Rt Hon Michael Gove during several meetings ,  sets out to outlaw the sale of all ivory in the UK - antique or modern - and ban the transit of ivory products through the UK. It is being supported by Lord Stockton, Boris Johnson, Stanley Johnson and William Hague.

The proposal would not require the destruction of any ivory products. Family heirlooms and historic items made from or containing ivory would be allowed to be passed on to family members or given to museums, but not bought, sold or traded for goods in kind.

Museums would be allowed to acquire, display and exchange collections from around the world and items of significant historical importance can be saved for the nation.

Antique furniture which contains less than 5% ivory and less than 200 grams in weight and antique Miniatures which were painted between 17th-19th century on thin slithers of ivory would need to be self-certified by the antique trade. The seller would be responsible for certification of the item prior to sale. The 1947 classification would be scrapped, meaning it would be illegal to sell all ivory, irrespective of its age. 

Musical instruments which may contain ivory which is less than 5% of the item and less than 200 grams can be taken abroad, bought or sold. Specific instruments would need an exemption, for example, some piano ivory keys and bagpipes. Each instrument would require an individual exemption certificate.

Save Me is also calling on the British government to issue an end date for the sale of new musical instruments that include ivory to be sold in the UK.

Save Me has been actively campaigning to stop the UK ivory trade. Last autumn they started a government petition that attracted over 100,000 signatures and forced a debate in parliament that took place in February 2017. At the time Dr. Brian May said; “These sentient beings and their multi-generation family groups are being driven to extinction because of human greed and a desire for ‘trinkets’. This has to stop. How could we begin to explain that we let elephants become extinct on our watch!"

12th August 2017 World Elephant Day

History has been unkind to elephants - bloody unkind. Throughout history, the human desire for ivory - used in products from jewelry and religious artefacts to ‘trinkets' - has far outmatched efforts to stop the killing of African elephants for their tusks. Ivory has been desired since antiquity because its relative softness made it easy to carve into intricate decorative items for the very wealthy. 

An estimated 26 million elephants roamed throughout Africa when the first European traders and explorers arrived (c1500-1800). The traders soon became hunters when they discovered ivory. They needed a way to transport the heavy ivory to the coast, but due to "sleeping sickness" that affected horses, cattle, and donkeys, people were the primary movers of goods. The need for human porters meant that the growing slave and ivory trades went hand-in-hand, particularly in the east and central Africa.

Brian May talks about the Ivory Trade 

In the 19th century, the European empires stretched across Africa. The elephant population halved within a century to around ten million. Ivory is in vogue in Europe and America. Combs, piano keys, pool table balls and ornaments fashioned from elephant tusks are in high demand. Tragically, by the beginning of the 20th century, Africa’s elephant populations had been reduced to 1.3 million due to the insatiable demand from the West.

In the 1950's and 60’s, as many African countries became independent, most increased colonial game and legislation laws that made hunting illegal or permitting it only with the purchase of expensive licences. Hunting had become the exclusive preserve of the wealthy - an image that continues to this day.

It didn’t stop poaching and the ivory trade though. Throughout the 1980s, around 250 elephants were being killed EVERY DAY. By the end of the decade, less than 600,000 elephants remained. In Kenya alone, the population dropped by 89% during the decade from 167,000 to just 19,000. The African elephant was on the brink of extinction.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned all commercial ivory trade which came into force in 1990. Kenya destroyed its entire ivory stockpile in a gesture against the ivory trade.

After the ban - and with the world united in conservation efforts over the last ten years of the century - elephant populations began to recover. Kenya’s population jumped from 55,000 to over 125,000 but this success came with a cost. In 1998, under mounting pressure from African leaders whose citizens faced poverty and drought, they allowed a ‘one-off’ sale of stockpiled ivory.

Japan bought 55 tonnes of ivory from Zimbabwe & Namibia for £3 million. In 2008, CITES granted Japan and China permission to import elephant ivory from government stockpiles; 102 tonnes of stockpiled ivory from Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe were sold to Japan and China for £9.3 million completely legally. 

The CITES ban, an insatiable lust for ivory from an increasingly wealthy Asia and the massive profits soon attracted the interest of professional gangs involved in the mass slaughter of whole herds from helicopter gunships as the trade became second only to drugs on the world’s black markets.

Between 2010 and 2014, the price of ivory in China tripled driving illicit poaching, whilst elephant numbers dropped by 62%. Over 100 elephants were being killed EVERY DAY. Shamefully, in 2016 - there are more African elephants being killed for ivory than are being born. We are still driving these magnificent sentient beings towards extinction.

Bull elephants with big tusks are the poacher’s main targets and their numbers have been diminished to less than half of the females. Female African elephants also have tusks. Elephants are matriarchal and live within a structured group. When the Bulls and Matriarch females are killed, the youngsters are not only orphaned but have had their group structure destroyed. Generations of knowledge is lost.

The Asian Elephant

The Asian elephant’s habitat ranges over 13 countries. They are endangered with less than 40,000 remaining worldwide – that’s less than 10% of the African elephant population. 

Wild Asian elephants suffer severe habitat loss in some of the most densely human-populated countries on the planet. Their traditional territories and migration routes have been fragmented by development, highways and industrial mono-crops such as palm oil and rubber tree plantations, which have destroyed millions of hectares of forest ecosystems. 

With no access to their natural habitat, elephants are forced into deadly confrontations with humans where neither species wins. Asian elephants are also poached for their ivory tusks, meat, and body parts while baby elephants are captured from the wild and sold into the tourism industry. Worldwide, Asian elephants are trained, traded and used for entertainment in tourist parks and circuses and also for illegal logging activities. These captive elephants are often mistreated, abused and confined to sub-standard facilities without adequate veterinarian care.

Elephants and humans share a long history, yet there is still so much we don’t know about them. They do have the largest brain of any land animal; they are smart, sentient, social and empathetic - qualities we strive for ourselves. We share so many characteristics with elephants that they may well be more like us than any other animal.

Elephants are a keystone species. It means they create and maintain the ecosystem in which they live and create the biodiversity that makes it possible for a myriad of flora and fauna species to live in those environments as well. 

Are we really the generation that will oversee the extinction of the largest land mammal on our planet? What a tragic and shameful legacy to leave for our children and grandchildren, a handful of ‘carved trinkets’ and a couple of elephants caged in a zoo. All species of elephants have the capacity to deliver a cubic ton of dung a week. Their depletion in numbers has meant that the seeds passed in this dung is a factor in reducing the natural rejuvenation of the areas they live in. Sign up to our newsletter and support us by becoming a "Friend of Save Me" 

Save Me Trust Statement - Ivory

Elephants are being murdered for their tusks every day. These sentient beings and their multi-generation family groups are being driven to extinction because of human greed and a desire for ‘trinkets’. This has to stop. How could we begin to explain that we let elephants become extinct on our watch? We do not believe that allowing the sale of ivory on a free market will help save wild elephants.

The recent experience of CITES allowing the sale of stockpiled ivory in 1998 and again in 2008 has seen the price of ivory triple in China and across Asia, with whole industries being set up to carve ivory again. This now fuels more demand that drives the black market price higher and sends criminal gangs rushing to Africa to murder wild elephants. We have created a never ending cycle of destruction.