The saga of the ivory trade and the elephant’s future

In our age of high-tech capabilities it beggars belief that we are unable to stop poaching once and for all

Elephants head, ivory trade, CITES
Safe until his growing tusk makes it profitable to kill him.

Yet again the illegal ivory trade and the killing of elephants is in the news with the UK  Environment Secretary Michael Gove at the forefront of the publicity announcing new measures to end the slaughter. I hate to think how many times have I heard this over the last forty years.

So many mixed messages it all becomes a bit of a farce.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was heralded as being the saviour of endangered species back in 1976 and several hundred countries signed up with the UK being one of the first but most, including the UK, never took it that seriously in enforcing it. In effect it was just a trade agreement and not for the protection of animals and I remember listening in disgust when attending the CITES conference in Buenos Aires in 1983 to countries discussing the size of quotas on elephant culling on the pretext that they were destroying the trees and habitat. Jump forward thirty years and elephants are now being complimented on shaping the landscape and making space for new plants and trees to grow when they tramp through the forest. Source

The UK has been its usual hypocritical self by being fully involved in the ivory trade for decades and according to a recent report exported 36,000 items between 2010 and 2015 more than three times the next largest exporter, the USA. Source 

The problem is that despite campaigning the situation hasn’t changed over the last 50 years

There has been the usual massaging of figures on how many elephants are poached and how many are left in Africa and the same doom laden prophecy of extinction within ten years. Some reports state that 50 elephants are being killed each day while others quote over a hundred. Estimates state that there are 380,000 African elephants left, a third of them in Botswana and that 144,000 have died in the last 10 years. Others reckon we are losing 30,000 each year which would equate to 300,000 in 10 years. The UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently quoted 20,000 killed every year so who really knows. Source  Rarely do figures differentiate between those that may have died naturally or through accidents, disease, malnutrition and legal hunting over the decades.There are so many mixed messages it all becomes a bit of a farce.

African elephant, baby elephant, poaching, ivory trade
We must make sure there is a future for such wonderful creatures.

The bottom line is that is doesn’t really matter what the correct figures are as long as it highlights the plight of the elephant and keeps the subject in the news and public awareness. The problem is that despite campaigning the situation hasn’t really changed over the last 50 years and unfortunately there is little chance it will improve in the future.

As long as there are cash rich people willing to spend money on unnecessary trinkets to prove their wealth and status we will continue to have an illegal ivory trade. And there will always be the corruptible government officials and traders to make it possible. In our age of high-tech capabilities it beggars belief that we are unable to stop poaching once and for all, but unfortunately there has never been the will to tackle the problem on a sustained basis and probably never will be.

Forty years on we still have poaching

Elephants have been my favourite animals ever since I first went to Africa in 1972 when I was dumbfounded by my first close up and personal encounter with them. I was lucky enough to make several visits to them during the 1970’s and 80’s and once lived for several months in Kenya. I have sat for hours and days watching them live their peaceful and complex lives and have always believed that no one should have the right to harm or kill such intelligent, family orientated and magnificent animals either for legitimate or illicit purposes.

Elephant herd, waterhole, ivory trade, CITES, poaching
It was an uplifting experience to find hundreds of elephants still enjoying life. Long may it continue.

Even at that time there were prophecies that the poaching would eradicate elephants within ten years, but here we are 40 years later and they are still surviving and we still have poaching and the ivory trade.

Recently I returned with my elephant loving partner to Africa after a twenty-five year gap and visited the Etosha National Park in Namibia purely to wallow for ten days in the presence of elephants, rhinos and lions, but expecting in the present climate of doom to see none. It was an uplifting and almost spiritual experience to find hundreds of elephants still roaming the landscape and I was even more delighted to see dozens of babies of all ages. The visit gave us continuing hope that there may be a future for the elephant. I am pleased to relate that we also saw many rhinos and lions. Long may it continue.

Author: John Brookland

John Brookland has been passionate about animals from an early age and has always been more concerned about their individual health and well-being than any scientific or zoological interest. During his long and varied career in animal welfare in the U.K. and worldwide, he has unfortunately witnessed most of the horrors of animal cruelty there is to see and has gained extensive insight into animal welfare issues. On leaving school he trained as an RSPCA clinic assistant in London and later was manager of one of their veterinary hospitals and an animal centre. He was Chief Inspector and manager of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau and spent time in Trinidad advising on a humane stray dog control service, before becoming a deputy manager and animal health inspector at Heathrow's Animal Quarantine Centre. He then travelled the world for a conservation group investigating the capture and transport of wildlife for the pet trade and was an honorary consultant to the IUCN and CITES. He is now retired and still travelling the world with his partner to view wildlife and wild places and writing a blog and books on animals.