December 2015

A History of Elephant Conservation

Press secretary at Animat Habitat.

This article takes a look back at a human history of our natural world with elephants… When a worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1989 led to a rebound in the population, to about a million… Then in 1999 and 2008, due to pressure from countries in Asia and southern Africa, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species allowed two sanctioned sales of ivory… Up until today, when the state of elephants in the world is not as it was decades ago and centuries ago and so on.

As the world tries to look forward to a future with elephants in the wild in Africa, people must move past any one baseline in our history with elephants. Look at how the way our world is, today, is not the way our world once was, nor the way our world will forever be. And the way of our wild world is, today, up to us.

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There are estimates of nearly thirty million African elephants in the wild in the 1500s, when Europeans started exploring Africa…


Between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s, the annexation, colonization and partition of most of Africa by seven Western European nation-states – the Belgian, the British, the French, the German, the Italian, the Portuguese and the Spanish colonies – charted an unprecedented ‘scramble’ for land and natural resources. The ivory trade followed the slave trade routes out of Africa, with broken tusks carried on the shoulders of broken men, out of the forests and savannas en route to the seas. African forest and savanna elephants were razed to the ground. Elephant populations were felled to ten million by the early 1900s, as an ‘ivory frenzy’ in Europe was fueled by the mass production of combs, brush handles, piano keys and billiard balls and so on. [12]

At this time, the United States of America was consuming 200 tons of ivory per year. [2]

Elephants continued to be slaughtered into the 1950s, with influxes of trafficked ivory that corresponded to African regions gaining independence from colonial rule. This meant wars. And elephants were a casualty.

1 Christy, B. National Geographic, Blood Ivory: ‘Ivory Worship’, October 2012. Website Link

2 Christy, B. Hartley, A. National Geographic, ‘The History of the Ivory Trade’, 2013. Website Link

+ Kelly J J. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), ‘Battle for the Elephants’, 2013.


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was agreed to by the Parties – the nation-states that signed the Convention – in March 1973. The Parties to CITES listed the African elephant on Appendix III in 1976, then Appendix II in 1977, then as threatened with extinction, again, in 1978, yet, with a clause that permitted commercial international trade in ivory under the regulation of CITES. Over the years, more and more States joined this treaty organization that would ordain international wildlife trade policy. CITES as a result regulated the continued commercial international trade in ivory. [3]

An Endangered Species Act was signed into law in the United States of America in December 1973. [4]

In 1979, estimates from the first pan-African elephant survey, led by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, reported the African elephant population at just over one million. Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton CBE would later found the data-driven charity registered in the United Kingdom and headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, Save The Elephants. [5]

3 CITES. Website Link.

4 United States Fish & Wildlife Service (US FWS), Endangered Species Act, 1973. Website Link.

5 Save The Elephants, ‘Counting Elephants’. Website Link.


The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) revealed groundbreaking undercover footage of criminal syndicates caught red-handed, exposing how the international trade in ivory operated. [6]

Ten years after commercial international trade in ivory was regulated under CITES, African elephant populations had, again, declined by more than half. Six hundred thousand remained by 1989. In July of that year, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) set fire to a 12-ton ivory stockpile in Nairobi National Park as a public, symbolic statement against the ivory trade. In October, in Lausanne, Switzerland, at the seventh Conference of the Parties, the Parties to CITES listed the African elephant on Appendix I, as a result a ban on the commercial international trade in ivory went into effect in early 1990. [1-3]

At the time of the ivory ban, the United States of America, Europe and Japan collectively consumed eighty per cent of the ‘carved trinket’ ivory market. The African Elephant Conservation Act went into effect in 1989, banning the import of African elephant ivory into the United States of America. [17]

6 EIA. ‘A System of Extinction’, 1989. Website Link

7 US FWS, African Elephant Conservation Act, 1988. Website Link.


The Republic of Kenya destroyed another 6.8 tons in 1991, followed closely by the Republic of Zambia, in 1992, with nearly 10 tons. [89]

On the other hand, the Republic of Botswana, the Republic of Namibia and the Republic of Zimbabwe submitted a proposal to down-list their elephant populations to Appendix II at the tenth Conference of the Parties, in 1997, in Harare, Zimbabwe, where Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe proclaimed that elephants took up a lot of space and drank a lot of water. According to Mugabe, elephants would have to pay for their habitat with their ivory. There was an alternative proposal: Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe would continue to honor the ivory ban granted an exception be made for an experimental sale of ivory stockpiles—ivory from elephants that had been culled or had died of natural causes. [1310]

The Parties to CITES approved a first one-off sale, of more than fifty tons—more than five thousand tusks, for approximately US$5,000,000 to a single buyer, Japan, in 1999. This was the Japan experiment… Almost immediately Japan wanted more, and soon China would want a regulated ivory stockpile too. [1310]

Also, in the late 1990s, the Parties to CITES approved a proposal for Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programs to keep all Parties informed on the status of illegal poaching and ivory trafficking. TRAFFIC, a non-governmental organization co-founded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to monitor global wildlife trade, managed and operated the ETIS database. The position of the IUCN and the WWF – with research projects and offices in ivory-trafficking States – complicated the oversight of ivory seizure audits. Also complicated, TRAFFIC headquartered the ETIS program in the Republic of Zimbabwe—the State spearheading the Japan experiment. [1112]

8 New Scientist, ‘Ivory torched for Elephant Day’, 1991. Website Link

9 WWF, ‘Crush and Burn: Destroying Illegal Elephant Ivory’, 2015. Website Link

10 CITES, ‘CITES sets strict conditions for any possible future ivory sales’, 2002. Website Link

11 CITES, Elephant Trade Information System. Website Link

+ TRAFFIC, Elephant Trade Information System. Website Link

12 CITES, Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants. Website Link

+ Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants. Website Link


The Republic of South Africa submitted a proposal to down-list its elephant populations to Appendix II at the twelfth Conference of the Parties, in 2002, in Santiago, Chile. There was, again, an alternative: South Africa plus the Republic of Botswana, the Republic of Namibia and the Republic of Zimbabwe submitted a proposal for another sale of ivory stockpiles. At that point, ETIS and MIKE lacked evidence – and lacked necessary oversight in some States for gathering proper evidence – of causality between the ivory stockpile sale to Japan and the poaching levels across Africa. [1313]

The Parties to CITES approved a second one-off sale and, by 2008, auctioned more than 100 tons of stockpiled ivory to two buyers, China and Japan, for a combined total of approximately US$15,000,000. That combined total was low. Japanese buyers were interested only in the medium-size, high-quality tusks for use as hanko. Chinese buyers were interested in the rest, the larger tusks for decadent carvings, and the smaller pieces for decorative trinkets. By almost all accounts, the ivory auction was an artifice. [1313]

Parties to CITES from nineteen African elephant range States, in 2006, called for all African elephant populations to be unified under a single CITES Appendix listing. This would have enacted a ban on all commercial international trade in ivory. African elephants have instead been split-listed between two CITES Appendices since 1997. This African Elephant Coalition (AEC) had just come together in 2002. The AEC – now made up of thirty elephant range States – then had just the support of enough Parties to pass a CITES-instituted nine-year moratorium on ivory stockpile sale proposals, agreed to at the fourteenth Conference of the Parties, in 2007, in The Hague, Netherlands—to go into effect after the auction, through 2017. [31415]

13 CITES, ‘Ivory Auctions’, 2008. Website Link

14 Russo, C. National Geographic, A Voice for Elephants, ‘Can Elephants Survive a Legal Ivory Trade?’, 2014. Website Link

+ Save The Elephants, National Geographic, A Voice for Elephants, Opinion: ‘Can Elephants Survive a Continued Ivory Trade Ban?’, 2014. Website Link

15 African Elephant Coalition. Website Link

Once upon a time… We saved the elephants when our industrial world substituted carved ivory with the mass production of plastic combs, plastic brush handles, plastic piano keys, plastic billiard balls and so on. Religious use of ivory, however, remained fixed in culture. Ivory trafficking followed ancient trade routes into the twenty-first century, now accelerated by planes, phones, and the Internet.

In 2008, the EIA reported an internal Chinese government document that showed, between 1991 and 2002, the Chinese government had lost track of more than 110 tons of stockpiled ivory—equivalent to the tusks of eleven thousand elephants. The artifice was being revealed. [16]

In recent years China has been implicated in more large-scale ivory seizures than any other non-African country. For the first time in generations many Chinese can afford to reach forward into a wealthy future, and they can also afford to look back into their own vibrant past. One of the first places many look is religion.
— Bryan Christy, Blood Ivory: ‘Ivory Worship’ (magazine, October 2012), National Geographic []

Zakouma National Park, Chad © Brent Stirton []


The price of ivory reached US$1,000 per pound in Beijing, as a consumer class emerged in the People's Republic of China. Ignited by increased demand in Asia, stoked by limited wages in Africa, the number of elephants killed for their tusks and the large-scale seizures of ivory elevated so high that 2011 was labeled ‘annus horribilis’ for the species. [17]

History: The ‘legal’ ivory loophole. [1]

The ‘pre-ban’ ivory loophole is where this history of the ‘legal’ ivory loopholes begins. African elephant ivory imported into a nation-state, before 1989, remained part of a viable domestic trade. Since no inventory was made of global ivory stockpiles before the ban, and since ivory can weather time, for all intents and purposes, forever, any trader caught with ivory tusks brazenly invoked the timeless defense: this is ‘pre-ban’ ivory.

In the approval process for the Parties to CITES, TRAFFIC overstated that its ETIS database extended back to the 1989 ivory ban, when, in fact, States were not asked to report ivory seizures to its system until 1998. And so when a second ivory stockpile sale was proposed to the Parties to CITES, in 2002, the ETIS database had no effective baseline to evaluate the Japan experiment. Even with another decade, the transparency of the ETIS database was limited by its core metric: seizures. Export or import seizures were, of course, managed and operated by the authorities of each State, itself, under evaluation.

The People's Republic of China considered the TRAFFIC information system a failure in regard to trade in ivory, at first. Then, after Japan received its first ivory stockpile under CITES, China reported the number of seizures of ivory trafficked into the Chinese mainland went up. In 2002, a Chinese report warned the Parties to CITES that a main reason for the increased trafficking of illicit ivory into Asia was the Japan experiment: “Chinese people misunderstand the decision and believe that the international trade in ivory has been resumed.” The Chinese consumers were apparently under the impression that the ivory markets were legal again, and, by 2004, the Chinese government had apparently forsaken any concerns. The People’s Republic of China petitioned the Parties to CITES for a second ivory stockpile sale.

The Parties to CITES had not been informed of the extent of the illicit ivory trade. The Parties had the ETIS seizure statistics. And so the future of the African elephant may forever be clouded by the moment when the Parties to CITES, lacking the data to evaluate the impact of its first ivory stockpile sale, endorsed a second.

Japan is an island nation with a narrow primary use for its ivory: carved stamps called hanko. The People's Republic of China is a nation with a population of more than ten times the size, a separate system for the main ivory market—the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), an extensive investment in Africa, and a culture with many uses for ivory ranging from symbolic figures to touristic trinkets.

Once the Chinese government legally acquired an ivory stockpile, the commercialized, criminalized ‘legal’ ivory loophole began in earnest. As part of the proposed ivory stockpile sale to China, a number of measures were instituted to safeguard the government-registered ivory, notably a photo-identification system for any ivory carving larger than a trinket. A 2011 survey of ivory markets in China, as reported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 2012, found that ivory markets in China found a way to exploit the system. On a small identification card – in a smaller-still photograph – the ivory carvings of the same religious or traditional motif all look alike. The exploitative markets simply retain the identification card from a sale, reuse the photograph to launder a look-alike carving made from illicit ivory, and then repeat the process and so on. And so, the cards now have value and a secondary illicit market. This identification system, which was proposed as a measure of legitimacy, has proved worse than no system at all.

Close history: The ‘legal’ ivory loophole. [118]

The two legal ivory sales will forever shelter smuggled ivory.

In July of 2011, the Republic of Kenya, again, destroyed its ivory stockpile, this time a 5 ton stockpile—a symbolic statement that the Gabonese Republic echoed the year after. [9]

16 EIA, ‘China, Ivory Trade & the Future of Africa’s Elephants’, 2008. Download PDF

17 TRAFFIC, ‘Annus Horribilis for African Elephants’, 2011. Website Link

18 IFAW, ‘Making a killing: a 2011 survey of ivory markets in China’, 2012. Website Link


Poachers traveled across the Sahara desert to massacre hundreds of elephants in the span of a few days in Bouba Ndjida National Park, the Republic of Cameroon. The scale of the killing was staggering. Empirical research, documented between 2009 and 2013, posited that poaching of elephants surpassed the level at which elephant populations naturally reproduce. [19]

The three previous years—2009, 2010 and 2011 listed in the ETIS records in the top five for amount of ivory seized around the world. The MIKE and the ETIS programs, in 2012, had enough data to suggest a close correspondence between trends in elephant poaching and trends in large-scale seizures of ivory. The Parties to CITES recognized that elephant poaching was, again, at a point of crisis, the most critical since the commercial international trade in ivory was banned in 1989. [20]

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at an event on ‘Wildlife Trafficking and Conservation: A Call to Action’ called upon world leaders at every level of the international community to stop the killing of African elephants, to stop the trafficking of African elephant ivory, and to stop the demand for ivory, altogether. [21]

19 Scriber, B. National Geographic, ‘100,000 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Just Three Years’, 2014. Website Link

20 CITES, ‘Experts report highest elephant poaching and ivory smuggling rates in a decade’, 2012. Website Link

21 CITES, ‘CITES welcomes Secretary Clinton’s call for action on illegal wildlife trade’, 2012. Website Link


In early March, in the Republic of Chad, nearly one hundred elephants were killed in a devastating blow to one of Central Africa's last remaining elephant populations. It is estimated that more than one hundred African elephants died every day in 2013. Ivory seizures across the world reached a new high. [22-24]

Mainland Chinese tourists to Hong Kong exceeded forty million—more than double the number from 2009. The price per pound of ivory in the People's Republic of China exceeded US$1,000—more than triple the amount from 2010. The average elephant killed in 2013 fell victim to poaching for twenty pounds of ivory—of predominantly female- and young-elephant-sized tusks valued at nearly US$30,000. In Africa, criminal syndicates and organized terrorist groups were now inveterate in poaching the elephants and trafficking the ivory to raise money for munitions. Also, in States along trade routes out of Africa, political elites and security forces were perforce complicit. [2425]

The African elephant population was estimated at 470,000—confined to a patchwork of protected areas. [2627]

United States President Barack Obama, in July, passed an executive order to address wildlife trafficking, including ivory. Then the United States of America crushed 6 tons of ivory – tusks and trinkets seized in the past twenty-five years – to publicly address the illegal action and international corruption, which predicate this poaching crisis. That crush, in November, along with an earlier ivory crush in the Republic of the Philippines, in June, marked the first two times ivory-consuming nation-states made such a statement. [2829]

22 Neme, L. A Voice for Elephants, ‘New Promises Follow Elephant Slaughter in Chad and Cameroon’, 2013. Website Link

23 Christy, B. National Geographic, ‘How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa’, 2015. Website Link

24 Martin, E. Vigne, L. Save The Elephants, ‘Hong Kong's Ivory’, 2015. Download PDF

25 Born Free USA, ‘Ivory's Curse: The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa’, 2014. Website Link

+ Born Free USA, ‘Out of Africa: Mapping the Global Trade in Illicit Elephant Ivory’, 2014. Website Link

26 IUCN, ‘Updated African Elephant Database’, 2015. Website Link

27 Elephant Database, ‘African Elephant Range’, 2015. Website Link

28 The White House, ‘Executive Order: Combating Wildlife Trafficking’, 2013. Website Link

29 Christy, B. National Geographic, ‘Historic United States Ivory Crush a Call to Global Action’, 2013. Website Link

+ Christy, B. National Geographic, ‘In Global First, Philippines to Destroy Its Ivory Stock’, 2013. Website Link


In January, the People's Republic of China – the biggest consumer of illicit ivory in the world – crushed 6 tons of carved trinkets and confiscated tusks, too, matching the American show of support for global efforts to protect African elephants from rampant poaching. Also in January, Hong Kong, noted for its more than four hundred licensed businesses displaying more than thirty thousand ivory items for sale—more than any other city in the world, announced plans to destroy more than 30 tons of confiscated ivory. (Only 1 ton was confirmed crushed in Hong Kong between May 2014 and 2015.) The Republic of Chad destroyed its national ivory stockpile in February. The French Republic did so too. Then the Kingdom of Belgium did so in April. These stockpiles weighed more than 5 tons altogether. [929-31]

Dr Mike Chase and the Botswana-based non-governmental organization Elephants Without Borders (EWB), with funding from co-founder of Microsoft turned philanthropist Paul Allen, launched and led the Great Elephant Census (GEC)—the first-ever pan-African aerial census. The aerial census collected data about the number and distribution of African elephants to inform a baseline for any decision making on elephant conservation, in particular, land management in elephant range States. The GEC found that, between 2007 and 2014, African savanna elephant populations declined by more than thirty per cent—more or less 144,000 elephants. Most were killed just for their tusks. Elephant populations were decimated in a number of areas, or extirpated altogether, plus a few surprise herds were found in places where elephants were not known to inhabit. [33]

30 Howard, B C. National Geographic, ‘China Crushes Six Tons of Confiscated Elephant Ivory’, 2014. Website Link

31 Born Free UK, ‘Ivory Destruction’, 2015. Website Link

32 African Parks, ‘President Idriss Deby Itno of Chad Destroys 1.1 Ton Ivory Stockpile’, 2014. Website Link

33 Elephants Without Borders (EWB), Great Elephant Census. Website Link

+ Paul Allen, Great Elephant Census. Website Link


According to a report published by Save The Elephants on ivory sales and stockpiles in Hong Kong, more than 100 tons of ivory from the Hong Kong government-registered non-commercial ivory stockpile were ‘deactivated’ and disappeared in a particularly short span, from 2008 through 2010, in particular in 2009, when a change in the registration system in Hong Kong required a license to possess ivory for commercial purpose. The report showed a correlation between the decreased weight of the government-registered non-commercial stockpile with the increased number of mainland Chinese tourists to Hong Kong. The report noted that correlation, however, in contrast with government-registered commercial ivory sales from 2010 through 2013, which accounted for less than 5 tons. This paradox – a thriving tourism industry that never diminishes commercial ivory stockpiles – can be explained by the aforementioned ‘legal’ ivory loophole in the registration system that invites exploitative traders to launder illicit ivory into the legal markets in Hong Kong. [243134]

The Republic of Kenya, again, set off a symbolic defiance of the international trade in ivory, burned 15 tons, followed closely by over 6 tons in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, nearly 5 tons in the Republic of Congo, more than 10 tons in the United Arab Emirates, nearly 1 ton in the People's Republic of China, 1 ton in the United States of America, and more than 2 tons in the Republic of Mozambique. [935-40]

34 Neme, L. National Geographic, ‘How World's Largest Legal Ivory Market Fuels Demand for Illegal Ivory’, 2015. Website Link

35 Born Free USA, ‘Kenya Sends Out 15 Ton Ivory Smoke Signal’, 2015. Website Link

36 Neme, L. A Voice for Elephants, ‘Ethiopia Burns Entire 6.1-Ton Ivory Stockpile’, 2015. Website Link

37 Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), ‘Congo Republic burns its entire stockpile of seized ivory’, 2015. Website Link

38 CITES, ‘CITES remarks to the first destruction of confiscated elephant ivory in the United Arab Emirates’, 2015. Website Link

39 US FWS, ‘United States Destroys Confiscated Elephant Ivory in Times Square’, 2015. Website Link

40 TRAFFIC, ‘Vital Evidence Goes up in Smoke’, 2015. Website Link

Elephant Conservation Today

The demand for ivory, the trafficking and the poaching are an acute threat to elephants in the wild in Africa today. Yet the ivory trade is not the only threat. There are ever more challenges for elephants with electrified fences, prolonged droughts and human-wildlife conflicts over any natural resources that remain in the buffer zones and on the fringes of farmlands developed into once wild elephant habitat. An elephant needs its tusks. And a lot of space. Elephant conservation is kind of like a big deal.

As for a proposition to take on the commercial international trade in ivory – the governmental manipulations of ivory stockpiles and the cultural fixations on ivory carvings – that is a dual challenge. A solution highlighted in this history of elephant conservation has started with investigative journalism. Undercover footage of criminal syndicates exposed how the international trade in ivory operated in the 1980s, leaked documents reported on the mismanagement of the Chinese government-registered ivory stockpile in the 1990s, into the 2000s, and then journalists, often posed as tourists, shined a light on dark ivory markets within the Chinese government-regulated system that followed the second one-off sale of ivory, and that same system persist to this day.

In this history of elephant conservation, there has also surfaced a subtext of investment in people. People, and African people most of all, have the most meaningful part to play in any solution for African elephant conservation. And so, a theme here has been investment in the livelihoods of people living in rural areas of elephant range States in Africa, including access to education and health care and so on. This part of any solution extends to many of the other challenges that threaten elephants today and, increasingly, into the future. Furthermore, this theme of investment in people has extended to educational campaigns in ivory-consuming States in Asia, in particular, to stop the demand for ivory.

A plea to save the elephants. At times, ivory burns have attracted worldwide attention and have proved a critical, visual tool to address the poaching crisis. Sometimes public figures in ivory-consuming States then raised the level of awareness about this crisis, and invited political leaders to take on this central proposition that is rooted in scientific evidence and facts about the trade in ivory. And everytime any person in a position to purchase ivory, now, or in the future, becomes informed about the implication of ivory products – and the life of the elephants – the more the buying stops, the killing will too. A last hope in this battle for the elephants is that more and more people like you will become invested in future campaigns or funds to save them.



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