By Kevin Heath
With over 35,000 elephants estimated to have been killed last year it is understandable that there are demands for a halt to ivory trading. But the reality is the poaching of elephants today is small fry compared to the killings that went on in the past.
Until European countries and the US who drove this carnage during the 1800’s halt their own domestic trade in ivory they have no justification or moral stance to tell countries like China and Thailand to halt their own trade in ivory.
To put the size of the market into context, last year 35,000 elephants were poached to meet the ivory demands of the world but in particular the demands of developing Asian nations. During the 1800’s 44,000 elephants were killed each year just to meet the demands of England. Add on the elephants killed to meet the demands of collectors in other European nations and the United States and you start to realise the scale of the killing to meet the demands of what is now termed antique or pre-ban ivory. It is estimated that at it’s peak during the mid to late 1800’s the ivory trade far exceeded the slave trade in value and was the most profitable trade to be involved in.
During the 1800’s England alone was importing 550 tons of ivory each year with 170 tons going to 1 city alone. Sheffield with its large cutlery manufacturers where using the ivory mainly for handles on knives and forks. 280 tones of the ivory imported into England was then exported on to other markets as England became a central hub for international trading in ivory and tusks.
At the time it was estimated that over 20 million elephants roamed across Africa. Then they came under a two pronged attack – from the north Egyptian hunters targeted forest elephants and from the south Arab hunter started to kill the African savannah elephants. All to meet the demands of the European and North American markets.
The impact on elephant populations across Africa was devastating and they never came close to recovering from the destruction.
The abundance of elephants is well documented by African explorers at the time. In one of Dr Livingstone’s books (A Popular Account of D. Livingstone’s Expedition to the Zambesi and its Triputaries…1858-1864.) he wrote, “In passing the Elephant Marsh, we saw nine large herds of elephants; they sometimes formed a line two miles long.”
F.D. Blyth in Livingston’s Last Travels gave a breakdown of the countries that England imported its ivory from. He also noted the vast quantities of ivory that was available which did not make it to the European market as the best tusks were shipped to India and China.
The countries that England sourced its 550 tons of ivory a year from were:
- Bombay & Zanzibar – 160 tons.
- Alexandria and Malta – 180 tons
- West Coast of Africa – 140 tons
- Cape of Good Hope – 50 tons
- Mozambique – 20 tons
In terms of tonnage only the whaling industry frenzy of the 1900’s manage to exceed the amount of elephants killed but in terms of numbers of animals killed the elephant slaughter of the 1800’s is the biggest crime against nature undertaken by man to date. In the 100 years of peak whaling it is estimated that 2.9 million whales where killed but the number of elephants killed in the 1800’s exceed 10 million. Most of those were killed in the second half of the 1800’s.
By 1913 only 10 million elephants remained in Africa and still the trade continued to meet European and North American demand. Over the next 75 years the killing continued and by 1989 when the international ban on trade was introduced just 600,000 elephants remained in Africa.
Elephants managed to rebound slightly from that low up to about 1 million but then the latest surge in elephant poaching began and since about 2005 numbers have reduced again to about 500,000 elephants in Africa.
While elephant poaching is increasing the fact remains that current rates of killing is insignificant compared to the mass slaughter that was undertaken during the 1800’s. The impact of that period still reverberates throughout the continent.
A female elephant killed in 1800 means that there are 4096 fewer elephants roaming the plains of Africa today because of the loss of generations. Elephants are slow to bred with a female elephant over here 60 or 70 year lifespan only expected to produce 8 calves. The cost of a pre-ban ivory trinket sold at auction today still has an impact on the viability of elephants today.
This is the reason why it is essential for domestic ivory trading in the UK to be banned and why the Conservatives must implement their election manifesto promise to ban the trade.
Ivory collectors will, of course, object and say that to end the trade will deny the joy of works of art. This is untrue. There is no call for the destruction of the art just the ending of profit-making and investment off the back of one of the biggest crimes against nature that has ever been recorded. The destruction of the ivory can come at a later date when people finally realise the damage to the natural world that the collections represent. Progress of civilisation and society will tackle that issue when it is ready – for today ending the commercial trade is the right step forward.
By making a stance against ivory trading in the UK the government and organisations in the UK will have the moral stance to take on the illegal trade in ivory in other countries. It has no moral stance while it allows investors to profit and make money from its own contribution to the elephant crisis.
It is time to make the ivory trade as anti-social as the fur trade and to bring to a close a period of human activity that has devastated on of Africa’s most iconic animals.