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Elephants and Ivory: Understanding the Poaching Crisis

African elephants are in crisis. Poaching for ivory has reached record levels with tens of thousands of elephants being killed for their tusks each year. And the poaching rates are rising, having escalated in the late 1990s and now spiking.

This crisis has far-ranging effects on nature and people in Africa.

Elephants play a crucial role in the overall health of dynamic ecosystems. They function as ecological engineers, shaping and maintaining habitat that other species need to survive. For example, by eating and trampling small trees, elephants prevent overgrowth in grasslands that sustain zebra and many other grazing animals, as well as predators like lions.

Poaching also threatens the lives and livelihoods of people living in places where elephants range. Poachers spread crime and rob communities of one of their most valuable assets. Elephants draw tourists from around the world, providing a legal, sustainable source of income for people living in communities where elephants range.

Will you support our work to protect elephants and their habitat in Africa?

Nine Key Questions about Ivory

The ivory issue is complex and can be confusing, and traffickers spread false information to fool buyers.

Here we tackle some key questions about ivory, including The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protect elephants in Africa.

1. Who is poaching the elephants?

Poverty is the primary driver of poaching in Africa. But increasingly, poaching is being carried out by heavily armed criminals who operate like gangs. Crime networks in both Africa and China are behind much of this poaching activity. These syndicates capitalize on poor enforcement in many elephant range states. Thriving in poorly governed areas, poaching fuels more crime, corruption, instability and fighting among communities, all of which scares away tourists and the money they would be pumping into local economies.

Mounting evidence reveals that income from poaching is also driving arms purchases by militant groups that are terrorizing communities in the region.

2. Who is buying the ivory?

While different cultures have prized ivory since ancient times, today the tusks are shipped mainly to Asian countries. The ivory is then carved into items such as bracelets, figurines and even iPhone cases. In a sad, ironic twist, ivory is often carved into small elephant figures.

China is the dominant consumer, accounting for the majority of demand. The remaining illegal ivory makes its way to other countries with lax enforcement, including Thailand and Vietnam.

There is also a market for illegal ivory in the Philippines, where it is carved into religious items, such as rosaries and crucifixes.

3. Why this dramatic increase in poaching activity?

Given that the primary market, China, has a booming economy and growing middle class, more people are willing to spend more money for ivory products, which are seen as status symbols. Many estimate that ivory prices have risen tenfold over the past five years. As a result, poaching has now evolved into a highly sophisticated trade.

4. Is all ivory illegal?

No. An international ban on ivory trade was declared in 1989 by CITES, a body established by an international agreement between governments to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

However, ivory imported prior to 1989 – or purchased in the CITES-regulated one-off sales in 1997 and 2008 – can be sold within that country legally. Generally, it's legal to buy and sell pre-ban and one-off-sale ivory around the world, including the U.S., Asia and Europe, subject to local rules. Adding to the complexity, the large amount of legal mammoth ivory entering the market is hard to distinguish from elephant ivory.

Because of low awareness and lax enforcement in several countries, including China, illegal ivory has crept into the legal market, making the already difficult job of separating legal from illegal ivory even more difficult. Not surprisingly, many sellers falsify documents “verifying” that items were made from pre-ban ivory.

Some researchers estimate that as much as 90 percent of the ivory for sale in Asia is illegal. The only safe approach for a consumer is simply to not buy ivory.

5. Do the people buying illegal ivory understand what is going on and simply not care?

There is not sufficient research to draw credible conclusions about the drivers of ivory consumption in Asia. However, significant anecdotal evidence suggests that many people in Asian markets simply don’t know the facts and buy ivory without meaning harm.

And sellers of illegal ivory spread misinformation.

Some Myths about Ivory
  • Ivory comes from elephant teeth that fall out naturally, and new ones will grow back.
  • Ivory is only taken from elephants that African families have killed for meat in order to survive.
  • Ivory is procured by tranquilizing the elephant and painlessly removing just the ends of the tusks.

While some Ivory likely enters the market from natural deaths, the reality is that poachers get most of the ivory by killing the elephant and hacking off its tusks at the skull.

6. Is there any way to curb ivory demand?

Yes, there are several examples in which ivory demand has been significantly reduced through awareness and law enforcement. Japan’s experience with the ivory trade following the 1989 international ban is a good example. After decades of buying about 40 percent of the world's ivory production, Japan signed the CITES agreement, stopped imports and has heavily enforced the ban.

People buy ivory items because of their beauty, and many believe that owning these products, such as ivory iPhone cases, will enhance their prestige. Concerned people around the world can help make ivory undesirable by spreading the word that the hallmarks of the ivory trade are crime and cruelty.

7. What is the solution to the poaching crisis?

The right solution must address both supply and demand. A variety of factors need to be addressed:

  • Reduce demand for illegal ivory by raising consumer and government awareness.
  • Tighten customs and enforcement procedures in Africa and Asia.
  • Implement harsher penalties for wildlife crimes in all elephant range states; for example, in Kenya there is a maximum penalty of five years for killing an elephant and few who are found guilty actually receive this max punishment.
  • Scale-up and enhance both local and national anti-poaching efforts.
  • Strengthen community-based conservation efforts in African range states.
  • Encourage elephant range states to collective action; rally them around a common stance on the CITES ban and ivory trade.

The increase in international attention and media coverage about the ivory crisis is helping attract more support for anti-poaching efforts, and helping push leaders in critical positions to commit to doing more to stop the slaughter. In recent months, some key leaders have publicly acknowledged the crisis and the need to take action, including the U.S. State Department, prime minister of Thailand, members of Parliament of Tanzania, and the Vatican.

However, commitments have meaning only if they are enforced, so it is vital that the international community continue advocating for elephants and the people whose lives and livelihoods are intertwined with them.

8. What is The Nature Conservancy doing to address the poaching crisis?

With elephant poaching at a record high, we are evaluating the best way to ramp up our efforts and add to the hard work of other organizations.

Our work over the past six years has focused on protecting elephant habitat and enhancing wildlife security in many of our project sites in Africa. Working with communities and partner organizations, we have achieved tangible results that are benefiting both elephants and the people who live among them. Some examples:


Through partnerships with the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) and Save the Elephants, we are enhancing security for wildlife and people in northern Kenya. NRT is an umbrella organization that serves 19 community wildlife conservancies representing 212,000 people across 3.5 million acres of wildlife habitat.

For these communities, wildlife brings tourists — and tourists bring revenue. A percentage of those revenues are reinvested into community development projects (water pumps, college scholarships, healthcare clinics, etc.).

NRT conservancies have a clear financial stake in preserving wildlife — which is often not the case in other parts of Africa. By lending a broad range of technical support directly to NRT, TNC helps to train rangers, monitor wildlife and promote land-use practices that increase wildlife abundance, preserve corridors and raise local awareness about the benefits of conservation.


We are working with a variety of partners to improve the anti-poaching response at both local and national levels. TNC helped the Tanzania National Park Authority (TANAPA) design a data management system that allows authorities to respond to poaching incidents more rapidly.

With geospatial expertise from TNC, TANAPA implemented a mobile data collection system. Now, wildlife monitoring information is collected in Serengeti National Park and sent via satellite to TANAPA headquarters for immediate, web-map viewing by management.

TANAPA is using this real-time, defensible information to inform mission-critical management decisions and prosecute poachers. TNC has also provided critical equipment for communities, such as bicycles and cell phones. Often the best defense against poachers is an inconspicuous community member (vs. obvious armed scouts) who can use a cell phone to notify local police of any suspicious activity.


In the Kafue Ecosystem, we are working with the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) to improve national park infrastructure, management and security. TNC helped ZAWA and local communities to hire, train and outfit 15 village scouts to patrol 600,000 acres at the southern end of Kafue National Park.

We have also improved park infrastructure in southern Kafue by renovating 13 scout houses, digging new boreholes (to increase water supplies), refurbishing the radio network and improving roads. ZAWA and village scouts are now able to patrol and deter poachers.

9. How can you help?
  1. Donate: Support the habitat protection and wildlife security efforts that TNC-Africa is implementing on the ground at our project sites. Just $50 can pay a ranger’s salary for a seven-day patrol to protect elephants.
  2. Use social media to help stop the killing. Tell everyone you know two things:
  • Poachers get ivory by killing elephants.
  • Sellers of illegal ivory will assure you that the items are legal and may even provide fake documentation. Don't be fooled. You can’t be sure, so just don’t buy it.


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