African elephants are – this is not news – the largest land mammals in the world. Although it is their most obvious characteristic, it’s not even the most amazing one. Elephants are among the most intelligent animals and they can create complex social relationships between them, like we do (or not that much anymore) and show deep family bonds in a matriarchal family structure. And they sport a large amount of ivory in the form of tusks that can be more or less massive.

Because of this, these giants, are now on the brink of extinction. The population of African elephants have been reduced by 97% in the past 100 years. The idea that 50 % of the remaining ones could be killed in the next 10 years, mainly due to poaching and commercial activities, makes things even harder to swallow. 

As of 2017, there are approximately 400.000 wild elephants roaming the savannah and jungle and the primary reason for this population decrease is poaching. These animals have the misfortune of carrying one of the rarest and most sought after materials in the world: ivory. We might be the generation that sees the end of the elephant species. 

The poaching industry

Ivory has long been traded all over the world. We are talking about a multi-billion dollar industry. What makes this particular good so lucrative? Prestige, historical and social value and a simple matter of supply and demand.

In the recent years the demand for it has increased dramatically, between 2007 and 2014 the elephant population decreased by 30%. The development of the Chinese market, the only country where ivory is still allowed (until December 31st 2017) is he main reason for this staggering increase.

Ivory is a symbol of wealth and power, and with the booming of China’s middle class, the demand skyrocketed mechanically.

‘The routes of ivory trafficking (Credit: Central Intelligence Agency)’

But the supply side of ivory, remains the most graphic side of the coin. At about $3,000 per kilogram in Hong Kong, the largest ivory port in the world, poaching can become a very lucrative activity for bush hunters and all the middlemen between them and the customers.

At both ends of this grim line, a decreasing population of elephants wandering the wild and more carcasses blanketing the African savannah and Chinese salons. The faltering supply (elephants) leads to an increase in prices, which means a better pay for the next tusk. This of course pushes sellers to stockpile their macabre stock. And the vicious circle is locked. 

How does the market work

An elephant tusk has a long way before it ends up painted or carved into (generally very ugly) art.

‘You really can’t use anything else for this? (artist unknown)’

It all starts in South-Eastern Africa, where the elephants are killed and their tusks removed. The poachers sneak the ivory to Vietnam (Nhi Khe), where it is treated and transported to its processing destination, China. The ivory is sold in luxury markets in Hong Kong and all across China.

The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade of ivory in 1990, leaving only room for limited exceptions to be traded, such as antiques. Problem is, the tracking of legal and illegal ivory trade is so flawed that the market is flooded with dirty ivory ‘laundered’ into legally sold ivory.

Did the watershed just happen?

The ban of the ivory traffic has gained a lot of supporters in the recent years.  On March 31st of this year 2017 (year of the fire rooster), China declared it was joining the world ban on all (legal and illegal ) ivory trade. As a proof of commitment,  Xi Jinping- president of China- closed 67 ivory licensed facilities and announced its plan to close the rest before the end of the year.

Although this decision has represented a great step towards saving elephants, they are still far from safety. Poaching is still a worldwide problem of unprecedented magnitude, affecting not only elephants, but also rhinos, gorillas and a list longer than the Nile itself. Wildlife is considered to be the most damaged part of our ecosystems, and that this is the hottest planetary boundary today. It is also the one that we understand the most and that we can have the most impact on.

‘Even insects love Awely! (Credit: Awely)’

To save them, and us, Plan A is uniting forces with Awely. Together we work to raise funds and awareness for the protection of elephants, gorillas, bonobos and tigers in three different projects that will help local communities and wildlife to coexist more peacefully. You can learn more about the campaign here.

And make a donation here.

It’s not only about conservation, it is also about understanding. Awely is working to protect elephants from poaching without using weapons. Their project in Zambia – South Luangwa conservation society – works together with local groups to create an harmonious coexistence between local villages and the wildlife that surrounds them. Their work with the local population to help them adapt their crops and to protect them from elephants destruction. As part of the programme, Awely also developed an educational campaign to encourage villagers to increase their tolerance towards wildlife.

If it weren’t for humans, elephants would have no predator and live a like pretty much free from worries. Now, as the rangers often explain, they hide their tusks in the presence of humans and have entered the long list of endangered species. With China’s decision to finally ban all ivory trade and people as determined as Awely’s director Renaud Fulconis, there is hope for the fragile giants. But we need to become the solution, not the problem.

Up close portrait of a giant

Up close portrait of a giant (Credit: Valentin Pacaut)