Blood Ivory

In mid-April a northern white rhinoceros named “Sudan” was placed under 24-hour armed guard at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Sudan is one of a kind – literally. He is the only remaining male of his subspecies, which now includes just six animals. If he dies without first mating with one of two females he shares a pen with, the northern white rhino will disappear from the planet.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t require much of an imaginative leap to picture that someday the African elephant could find itself in a similar situation. Just as rhino populations have been hammered in recent years as poachers go after the animals’ horns (which, according to myth, have some medicinal properties), the African elephant is in the midst of a poaching crisis as consumers in a newly affluent Asia seek out ivory carvings to demonstrate their wealth. Unless something changes, within a decade or so there will be no African elephants left in the wild. That’s not rhetorical flourish, just hard arithmetic. The current rate of poaching – an estimated 100,000 elephants killed between 2010 and 2012 – exceeds the rate at which the animals are reproducing.

A world without wild elephants – is there a more heartbreaking example of how humans’ conspicuous consumption eats up Earth? Ivory, of course, isn’t a necessity. It’s nothing more than a luxury good, a status symbol – a fact that makes the elephant crisis in Africa all the more maddening. For the African elephant, the road to extinction is paved with trinkets, baubles, and bangles.

A newly affluent Asia, I wrote, and it is true that much of the poached ivory ends up in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Manila. For the nouveau riche, nothing says “I’ve arrived” like, say, an ivory-plated car valued at $2.7 million (true story). But before you start pointing fingers, know this: The United States is among the world’s top markets for illegal ivory. When it comes to the lure of ivory – what writer Carl Safina has dubbed “the darkest white thing” – infatuation crosses cultures easily.

So, what is to be done? Better wildlife protection in the forests and savannahs of Africa is certainly important, but as Tristan McConnell reports from Kenya (“The End of Elephants?”), there will always be a long line of poor young men willing to pull the trigger to keep their families fed. Tightened enforcement of national and international laws could also help, but as I report (“Hiding in Plain Sight”), a lot of the market for illegal ivory has moved online, where it’s harder than ever to track. Among veteran conservationists there is even debate about the efficacy of ivory bans (Plus-Minus), and whether such prohibitions might just be the wildlife version of the failed War on Drugs.

Like so many other environmental issues, saving the African elephant ultimately comes down to human desire. It’s an issue of demand. The poaching won’t end until we – both here in the US and in China – stop asking for ivory. Better laws and tighter law enforcement can do their part, but this crisis won’t be solved until tastes change. As a global society, we need to agree that an ivory ornament on the mantle isn’t worth the price in blood.

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