Why Are We So Obsessed With Ivory?

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A guest post for Curious Meerkat by Emily Folk.

Have you ever considered a world without elephants? This is a world we’re heading toward with the profound level of poaching that has occurred. As a result of almost institutionalized poaching over many decades, we have decimated the population of wild African elephants to between 400,000 and 600,000 individuals.

Every day, 100 elephants are poached for the ivory — that’s one every 15 minutes. If this rate continues, elephants could be extinct within a decade.

African Elephant in Tanzania.
Photographed by nickandmel2006, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license from Wikimedia Commons.

What Exactly Is an Elephant Tusk?

An elephant’s tusk is a tooth. It’s an elongated incisor, one-third of which is embedded into the elephant’s skull. The tusk is made up of nerve endings and pulp matter, and removal is deadly.

Elephants use their tusks in a variety of ways. They are used to protect themselves and their herd from predators, and elephants can even use their tusks for digging water holes. However, elephants are also an integral part of the environment. They are sometimes referred to as “mega gardeners,” and without them, hundreds of animal and plant species would cease to exist as well.

Why are Elephants Are Killed for Their Tusks?

What could possibly validate the murder of these animals for two of their “teeth?” Unfortunately, the answer is disappointing, but not all that surprising given the historical human tendency to profit from other species’ suffering. Elephants are sacrificed in their hundreds because of Chinese demand for ornamental jewellery and apparent naturopathic purposes.

Up to 70 percent of ivory poached goes to China, where half a kilogram of it can sell for as much as 1,000 U.S. dollars. This increase in demand has been fueled by the growth of a middle class in China. People can now afford the material that they have grown up believing is better than diamonds.

What’s Being Done to End the Ivory Trade?

It is said that buyers of ivory don’t understand they have blood on their hands. That notion is startling given where we are in the timeline of civilization and the increasingly global dissemination of knowledge. Conservation efforts have never reached so far and wide through media as they do today. So how can people not know about the tragedy behind their white gold trinkets? Accountability for this gross misconception seems to lie with the Chinese government.

Carved ivory photographed at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.
Photographed by USFWS Mountain-Prairie used under a CC-BY 2.0 license from Wikimedia commons.

“Elephant teeth” is the direct translation of the Chinese word for ivory, xiangya, and it’s possible this has contributed to the idea that elephants are not harmed during ivory harvesting — an IFAW survey revealed that 70 percent of Chinese polled did not know that ivory was plucked from murdered elephants.

But from uncovering this bizarre ignorance, change has been set into motion. A variety of conservation campaigns have been aimed at educating the middle class — those most likely to purchase ivory. People who have seen these campaigns, such as posters depicting how an elephant’s life is sacrificed to harvest their tusks, are far less likely to purchase ivory products. Japan was previously the largest demander of ivory, before organizations and celebrities raised awareness and reduced the consumption by 99 percent.

Progress is on the Horizon

As hard as it is to digest the ongoing ivory trade, there is progress — and that is what we must concentrate on and work collaboratively to enforce. As with many things, charity starts at home. In the United States, there is a federal ban on the trade of ivory. However, each state needs to autonomously choose to reject any importation of ivory from other states. Between 2010 and 2015 Britain was the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory, but there’s hope from a statement by Boris Johnson that the government is committed to an all-out ivory ban.

The only reason people could be obsessed with ivory is because of ignorance. Hopefully, China will soon follow Japan and end their desire for meaningless ivory artifacts before the African elephant disappears for good.

It is our responsibility to not only protect these animals but also to spread the knowledge of what elephants contribute to our lives and our planet. As Boris Johnson said in his speech at Chatham House, “It is mankind’s privilege to share the planet with these magnificent and curious creatures, these throwbacks from a different age.”

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