Nature & Conservation / Asia Wide

Asia’s bold stand for elephants

by Naomi Clark-Shen
Length 6 min

The number of African elephants has dropped by a staggering 90 percent in the last hundred years.  With the situation so critical, Singapore announced in parliament that it will join China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in banning the domestic sale of ivory—a lucrative trade that is to blame for this decline in elephants.

Every 25 minutes one elephant is killed for their ivory tusks. Supplied mainly to Southeast Asia and China, ivory is carved to create ornaments and jewellery—a tradition which stretches back over 3,000 years in China.

Picture of various ornamented elephant ivories.
Ivory is often used to make carved ornaments such as these.

Consumers buy this “white gold” because of the luxury and status associated with it. However, with Asian elephants now being a more minor source of illegal ivory, Africafamous for its iconic wildlifeis taking the brunt of the problem. The continent is estimated to lose US$25 million a year in tourism income as a result of elephants being killed for their ivory.

Loading...
The historic range of African elephants compared to their current range. (Range information acquired from Thouless, IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group, and IUCN--The World Conservation Union. African Elephant Status Report 2016, and de Boer, et al., ‘Understanding Spatial Differences in African Elephant Densities and Occurrence, a Continent-Wide Analysis.’)

This is no new phenomenon: plummeting elephant numbers led to an international ban on the ivory trade back in 1989.

The regulations meant that ivory could no longer be internationally traded unless accompanied by a permit that showed it had been acquired legally. This refers to ivory collected from elephants killed before 1989, from elephants that died a natural death, or from a select few countries that still allowed regulated trade.

Domestic sales of legal ivory were still permitted. However, in some countries it was noticed that their domestic sales were not decreasing as they should have done post-ban—which suggests stocks were being replenished with illegal ivory from newly slaughtered elephants.

With demand for ivory still high, poachers and traders were finding ways to supply it through the black market.

A stack of elephants' ivories which were sold illegally in the black market.

The illegal ivory trade persisted, and even boomed after 2008. The scale of the trafficking today is enormous: confiscation of illegal ivory makes up nearly 20 percent of the total seizures of wildlife and their products, but it is believed that these seizures represent just 10 percent of the actual illegal ivory in trade.

The graph shows that more ivory was seized in its raw form, suggesting processing was done in demand, instead of supply, countries.

Total elimination of the illegal ivory trade is impossible, particularly when those in authority are sometimes corrupt and and have a stake in the dealings. Some seized ivory even has markings consistent with it having once been in police custody.

Criminal networks also continually adapt their methods to outsmart officials.

Container ships are a popular means of trafficking ivory because less than 5 percent of containers are ever inspected.  Ivory is easily hidden, for example in hollowed out logs and crates of corn. However, with seizures of ivory from container ships increasing, it appears that traffickers are moving to air travel.

Traffickers also adjust their trade routes. Once a country ‘gets smart’ to the issue, the traffickers get their illegal ivory to its end destination by transiting through different countries.

Criminal networks have adapted their illegal ivory trade routes over the years. Data from CITES: https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/african_elephant_summit_background_document_2013_en.pdf

It is clear that the 1989 international ivory ban has had limited success in protecting elephants. As a result, some countries have taken matters into their own hands.

They have banned the domestic sale of all elephant ivory, even if acquired legally. Without a legal market, there will be no cover for illegal products.

The UK and USA have made such commitments, although the Trump administration has since weakened it. But even more impressive are the Asian countries which have taken a stand, for ivory is not only a tradition but a lucrative part of their economies: tusks from a single elephant can be worth more than US$100,000.

Scroll right to see Asia's progress in banning ivory sales.

Only time will tell if these commitments can save the elephants.

The trade and sale of many wildlife products, including rhino horn and tiger parts, are banned in Asia. Yet, they continue to be poached at catastrophic levels with points of sale being hidden from plain sight.

There are also other sources of ivory such as hippo and walrus teeth. This raises concerns: could the ban on elephant ivory shift a greater burden onto these animals? And could these still legal ivory trades serve as cover for illegal elephant ivory dealings?

We must also remember that while China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore have made a stand, other large ivory marketssuch as Thailandhave yet to do so.

What comes next is uncertain, but we must, for now, celebrate these bold moves from some parts of Asia, which send a message that ultimately, “the life of an elephant is more important than the ivory carving culture.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article did not specify that Singapore’s proposed ban on the trade was only for domestic sale, and not a blanket ban. This has been rectified on 29 May 2019.