We have 5 years. In 2020, it’s entirely possible that the African Elephant will be extinct in the wild. No, not all elephants — fortunately, we are not quite at that point. But the African elephant is crucial to the health of African wildlife. This isn’t just one species facing extinction. Losing the African elephant could destroy the ecosystem of the savannah.
On an ethical level, losing elephants would be devastating. They are emotional, empathetic, and intelligent. Elephants grieve the deaths of their family members and of strangers as well. They comfort one another, caress the body and bones of the dead, and hold vigils over corpses for days.
“I have spent hours and hours watching elephants,” Jane Goodall addressed during World Elephant Day last year, “and come to understand what emotional creatures they are… [death rates are] massive individual suffering.”
Elephant populations have been in danger for decades. The drastic hunting rates of the 1980s — reaching 100,000 a year — prompted a ban on international sales of ivory in 1989. However, the death rate has seen little decline. The elephant population in the 1980s was around 1 million, but today that number stands at 470,000. In 2013 alone, more than 35,000 African elephants were killed.
A growing demand for ivory, particularly in Asia, generated a surge of poaching. Habitat loss and fragmentation also limit the area elephants can live on, reducing the size of the population through sheer resource competition. Between 1979 and 2007, the elephants’ range shrank from three million square miles to one million, a loss of two-thirds of their traditional territory. Due to the combination of these factors, a study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that more elephants are killed each year than are born.
This massive loss should not — cannot, for nature’s sake — be endured. While the legacy of African elephants may live on in zoos around the world, the African ecosystem would suffer a tremendous blow. We would have an environmental calamity on our hands.
America is the second largest market for ivory in the world. It is clear that we must enact change, but how? The U.S. does not have elephants, so many might think the blame and responsibility falls somewhere else. With no elephants to physically protect, the U.S. must focus its energy on economic solutions. The ivory trade runs on supply and demand: If there are no ivory markets to sell to, then the ivory trade is not profitable and poachers will stop slaughtering elephants.
The Obama administration recently enacted a ban that attempts to offset a loophole in the 1989 ban on the sale of raw African ivory. This ban allowed the sale of antique ivory pieces, but wound up acting as a cover for the illegal ivory trade. A study by Daniel Stiles concluded that 90 percent of the ivory trade in the U.S. is illegal due to the 1989 ban. While Obama’s new ban should be cause for celebration for starting to solve this loophole, traders of legal ivory criticize the new ban and the stricter regulations it places on all ivory, not just illegal pieces. However, there is more at stake here than an old chess set. The ivory trade should be restricted altogether. After all, elephants have been on Earth for 55 million years. What right do humans have to wipe them off the face of the planet, especially in the name of a trinket or a collector’s gun?
A campaign against animal exploitation of this stature has happened before. The 1990s campaign against fur had widespread success by displaying fur as a distasteful and cruel thing to wear instead of a luxury item. Animal rights activists made fur shameful by showing graphic videos and throwing paint at fur coats, intentionally ruining them. Although these tactics produced criticism, no one can argue their effectiveness. People stopped wearing fur and acknowledged the cruelty behind the once prized items. By raising awareness about elephant poaching and making ivory a symbol of elephant brutality and extinction, Americans and people all over the world could achieve similar results to those of the anti-fur campaign, this time for elephant poaching. Changing the view on ivory can save a magnificent and one-of-a kind species.
// Alexandra Narin
Elephants face extinction, as they are hunted and killed for their tusks, sold in the ivory trade. One pound of ivory sells for $1,500 on the black market, and the only way to get it is through poaching. Poachers range from criminal syndicates to, surprisingly, terrorist organizations. Al-Shabab, a Somalia-based wing of Al Qaida, makes $600,000 a month from poaching to fund its actions. Ivory is most valued in China, due to the fact that ivory figurines are traditional gifts. In one survey, more than two-thirds of Chinese ivory collectors didn’t know elephants had to be killed for the ivory. They thought it grew back like fingernails.