Only a few surviving elephant herds remain in the wild. In Asia, elephants are venerated. However, they are also highly valued as domestic animals for work and transport and most tamed animals must be captured from the wild (although there has been recent progress in captive breeding). One-third of the surviving 35,000 Asian elephants are now in captivity, and the survival of all wild herds is threatened.
The combination of habitat loss and ivory poaching have made the African elephants endangered. Ivory has been traded for thousands of years, but this commercial activity escalated dramatically after the middle of the twentieth century. During the 1980s, about 100,000 elephants were being slaughtered each year, their tusks ending up as billiard balls, piano keys, jewelry, and sculptures. The oldest males, bearing the biggest tusks, were killed first, but as their population diminished, younger males and females were also slaughtered, leaving young calves to grieve and usually die of starvation.
The unsustainable "elephant holocaust" was brought to public attention in the 1970s and bitter battles have ensued between government authorities, ivory traders, and conservationists. Not until 1989 was a ban imposed on the international trading in elephant ivory. This was enacted by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (or CITES). In the early 1990s, elephant kills in Kenya and other African countries dropped to almost zero, but by then the total surviving population of elephants had been reduced to an extremely low level. Today, elephants are worth more alive than dead in some regions, where local ivory prices have crashed from $30 a kilogram to $3, while tourists coming to see elephants and other wildlife bring hard currency to African governments, totaling more than $200 million a year.
However, the international ban on trading elephant ivory is extremely controversial, and there are strong calls to partially lift it. This is mostly coming from South Africa, Zimbabwe, and other countries of southern Africa. Effective conservation efforts in that region have resulted in the build-up of relatively large elephant populations in comparison with the natural areas that are available to support the herds, so that habitat damage is being caused. In fact, some of these countries engage in legal culls of some of their elephants, to ensure that the population does not exceed the carrying capacity of the available habitat. These countries also believe that they should be able to harvest their elephants at a sustainable rate, and to sell the resulting ivory in Asian markets, where the price for legal ivory is extremely high. This seems to be a sympathetic goal. In fact, CITES has decided to make limited trade exceptions; in April 1999, Zimbabwe held an auction for 20 tons of legal ivory, all of which was purchased by Japanese dealers. These relatively small, closely monitored sales of legal ivory from southern Africa will now probably occur periodically.
Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to separate "legal" and "illegal" ivory in the international marketplace, and some people feel that this partial lifting of the ban could result in greater poaching activity in countries where elephant populations remain perilously small. The real problem, of course, is that the growing human population and its many agricultural and industrial activities are not leaving enough habitat for elephants and other wild creatures, resulting in the endangerment of many species.
Douglas-Hamilton, Iain, and Oria Douglas-Hamilton. Battle For the Elephant. New York: Viking Penguin, 1992.
Hayes, Gary. Mammoths, Mastodons, and Elephants—Biology, Behavior and the Fossil Record. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Moss, Cynthia. Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years of Life in an Elephant Family. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988.
Redmond, Ian. The Elephant Book. Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 1991.
Scullard, H. H. The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974.
Marie L. Thompson
Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralElephant - Evolution, Body, Limbs, Head, Mouth And Trunk, Teeth, Ears, Group Structure - Eyes, Social behavior, Death