African Elephants and the Ivory Trade

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Millions of elephants once roamed the continent of Africa. African elephants, which are the largest terrestrial animals, dig watering holes, trim vegetation, disperse seeds, and help trees germinate as they wander. Like so many species, African elephant populations have suffered from habitat destruction and conflict with humans. But sadly, the biggest threat to elephants today is poaching, or illegal killing. Driven by a soaring ivory market in Eastern countries, elephants are being hunted and slaughtered for their tusks like never before. Tens of thousands of elephants were killed in 2012 and the numbers appear to be rising.

Elephant tusks are actually modified teeth. Unlike Asian elephants, both male and female African elephants have tusks, and so are equally at risk. The tusks continue to grow over the course of the animal’s life, and may reach 5 to 8 feet in length. African elephants use their tusks mainly for digging, stripping bark, and to defend themselves. People use elephant tusks to create carved objects such as statues or jewelry.

In 1989, the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES) placed a worldwide ban on ivory trade. The ban appeared to be making a difference, and many elephant populations began to rebound. Replacement materials have been found to make products that were once made of ivory such as piano keys and billiard balls. But a loophole was introduced when it was determined that ivory from elephants that died of natural causes could be sold legally. In 2008, Africa sold 73 tons of ivory to Asia, where it was used to carve religious statues and other objects.

The result has been a dramatic increase in the demand for such ivory products, and where there are riches to be made from such a demand, there are people willing to fill it. Because monitoring vast wildlife preserves and enforcing anti-poaching laws is difficult to do with the limited resources that African governments have to devote to the cause, elephants continue to be killed and the ivory is smuggled out of Africa. In Asia, dealers can make it rich as they sell the ivory and carvings, often under the disguise of legally obtained or artificial ivory.

The outlook for the African elephant is bleak as things currently stand in the ivory market. In China, for example, sales of religious products have reached over $15 billion a year, new ivory carving factories have opened up, and students can learn ivory carving at the Beijing University of Technology.


1. Draw a diagram describing how economics relate to ecology in this case study.

2. The end-buyers of ivory products may not be fully aware that they are indirectly supporting the killing of elephants. Write the content for a simple educational web page to educate consumers.

3. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) believes that involved governments need to increase anti-poaching law enforcement. Brainstorm steps a nonprofit organization or multinational organization such as the United Nations could take to help them achieve this goal.

More to Explore

World Wildlife Federation Elephant Page
African Elephant Conservation Fund