December 2015

A History of Elephant Conservation

Press secretary at Animat Habitat

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


Elephant populations were whittled to ten million by the early 1900s, as an ivory frenzy in Europe fomented the mass production of combs, brush handles, piano keys, billiard balls and so on. [1]

At this time, the United States was consuming 200 tons of ivory per year. [1]

Elephants continued to be slaughtered into the 1950s, with influxes of trafficked ivory that corresponded to African regions gaining independence from colonial rule. [2]

1 National Geographic, ‘The History of the Ivory Trade.’ Video Link

2 National Geographic, Battle for the Elephants, 2013. Video Link


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was agreed to by the Parties – the 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. And, in time, many more States ‘joined’ the Convention. CITES as a result regulated the continued international trade for commercial ivory. [3]

An Endangered Species Act was signed into law in Canada and in the United States of America in December 1973. The African elephant was listed as threatened in 1978, yet, with a clause that allowed continued international trade for commercial ivory under the regulation of CITES. [4]

Estimates from the first pan-African elephant survey, led by Iain Douglas-Hamilton in 1979, reported the African elephant population at just over one million. Iain later founded the famous elephant charity, Save the Elephants, a United Kingdom registered charity based in Kenya. [5]

3 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Website Link.

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

5 Save the Elephants (STE). ‘Counting Elephants’. Website Link.


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

Ten years after international trade of commercial ivory was regulated, the African elephant population had, again, declined by more than half. 600,000 remained by 1989. In July of that year, Kenya destroyed its 12-ton ivory stockpile as a public, symbolic statement against the ivory trade. In October 1989, at the seventh Conference of the Parties, CITES listed the African elephant on Appendix I, as a result a ban on the international sale of ivory went into effect in early 1990. [137]

The African Elephant Conservation Act went into effect in 1989, banning the import of African elephant ivory into the United States. [8]

6 Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). ‘A System of Extinction’, 1989. Website Link

7 . Website Link

8 United States Fish & Wildlife Service (US FWS). African Elephant Conservation Act, 1988. Website Link.


Kenya destroyed another 6.8 tons in 1991, followed closely by Zambia, in 1992, with nearly 10 tons. [9]

Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe submitted proposals, in 1997, to down-list their elephant populations to Appendix II based on some early signs of recovery, and to sell their ivory stockpiles. CITES approved a first one-off sale, of more than 50 tons—more than five thousand tusks, for approximately US$5,000,000 to a single buyer, Japan, in 1999. [10]

Also, in the late 1990s, CITES approved the proposed Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), established to keep its member states informed on the status of illegal killing and trade. [1112]

11 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS). Website Link

12 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE). Website Link


In 2002, South Africa submitted a proposal to down-list their elephant populations to Appendix II, and South Africa plus Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe proposed a second one-off sale. ETIS and MIKE lacked evidence – and lacked the necessary oversight for gathering proper evidence – of causality between ivory stockpile sales and poaching levels. CITES approved and, by 2008, auctioned more than 100 tons of stockpiled ivory to two buyers, Japan and China, for a combined total of approximately US$15,000,000. [13]

In 2006, delegates from nineteen African elephant range states called for a total ban on trade in ivory. The African Elephant Coalition (AEC) passed a CITES-instituted nine-year moratorium on new ivory stockpile sale proposals, agreed to in 2007, in effect through 2017. [14]

13 Independent. ‘Return of the Ivory Trade’, 2008. Website Link

14 Elephant Protection. ‘Can Elephants Survive a Continued Ivory Trade Ban’, 2014. Website Link


The price of ivory reached US$1,000 per pound in Beijing, as a consumer class emerged in China and increased demand, and, driven by low wages in Africa, the numbers of poached elephants and large-scale ivory seizures rose so high that 2011 was labeled ‘annus horribilis’ for the species.  [13]

In July, Kenya, again, destroyed its ivory stockpile, this time 5 tons, a symbolic statement that Gabon echoed the following year, and Philippines and the United States of America echoed the year after that. This marked the first time an ivory-consuming nation took such a step.  [1415]

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

16 Born Free. Ivory Destruction. 2015. Website Link

17 National Geographic. ‘Philippines to Destroy Its Ivory Stock’, 2013. 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, Cameroon. The scale of the killing was unprecedented.  [18]

Empirical research, documented between 2009 and 2013, demonstrated that poaching of elephants surpassed a level at which elephant populations naturally reproduce. CITES recognized that elephant poaching again reached an unsustainable level.

United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made a Call-to-Action to world leaders to stop the epic slaughter of African elephants.  [19]

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

19 New York Times. ‘Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy as Ivory Fuels Wars and Profits’, 2012. Website Link


It is estimated that more than one hundred elephants died every day in 2013. Ivory seizures across the world reached a new high. Mainland Chinese visitors to Hong Kong to shop exceeded forty million—more than double the number from 2009. [19]

The price per pound of ivory in China exceeded US$1,000—more than triple the amount from 2010. One elephant yielded about 20 pounds of ivory, which valued at nearly US$30,000.

The African elephant population is estimated at 470,000 and confined to well-protected areas.

United States President Barack Obama passed an executive order to combat wildlife trafficking, followed by the aforementioned United States ivory crush, which included 25 years’ worth of seized tusks, carvings, and trinkets, all to raise awareness of the global poaching crisis. [23]


In early March, in Chad, nearly one hundred elephants were killed in a devastating blow to one of Central Africa's last remaining elephant populations.

Earlier, in January, China, the biggest consumer of illegal ivory in the world, crushed 6 tons of tusks and carved ornaments to signal it would do more to join 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 illegal ivory. Only 1 ton was confirmed crushed in Hong Kong in May. Chad, France and Belgium each destroyed ivory stockpiles that weighed more than 5 tons combined.

Paul Allen and Elephants Without Borders launched the Great Elephant Census, the first-ever pan-African aerial census, and preliminary data suggested dramatic drops in populations in some regions, plus a few surprise herds in places where elephants did not previously exist.


According to the 2015 report on Hong Kong’s Ivory by Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne for the Kenyan non-governmental organization Save the Elephants (STE), the total ivory stockpile that weighed 665 tons, in 1989, now weighed about 111 tons, yet sales in the last four years accounted for only 5 tons of ivory. This paradox – thriving sales that never diminish the supply – can be explained by flaws in the licensing system that let unscrupulous traders funnel illegal ivory into the legal trade. The EIA released an internal Chinese government document which, it said, showed that, over 12 years, officials had lost track of more than 130 tons of stockpiled ivory—equivalent to the tusks of eleven thousand elephants.

Kenya, again, kicked off a symbolic defiance of trade in ivory, burned 15 tons, followed closely by over 6 tons in Ethiopia, nearly 5 tons in Republic of Congo, more than 10 tons in United Arab Emirates, nearly 1 ton in China, 1 ton in United States, and more than 2 tons in Mozambique.

+ National Geographic Battle for the Elephants – Aidan Hartley, Tanzania (2013)
− Close: National Geographic Battle for the Elephants – Aidan Hartley, Tanzania (2013)

+ Series Intro – Inside the Ivory Trade

− Close: Series Intro – Inside the Ivory Trade

+ Episode 1 – The Plight of the Elephant

− Close: Episode 1 – The Plight of the Elephant

+ Episode 2 – Criminal Traders Exposed

− Close: Episode 2 – Criminal Traders Exposed

+ Episode 3 – The China Ivory Market

− Close: Episode 3 – The China Ivory Market

+ Episode 4 – Massive Ivory Stockpile

− Close: Episode 4 – Massive Ivory Stockpile


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