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Lets talk about the history of the African ivory trade #factfriday

Ivory has been desired since antiquity and sadly continues to be desired because it is easy to carve into intricate decorative items for the very wealthy. Despite changes in regulations in Africa over the past 100 years, the ivory trade continues to thrive driven by the demand for it in parts of Asia.

Lets explore the brief history of the African elephant ivory trade …

Old illustration of ivory traders
Old illustration of ivory traders in Southern Sudan. Created by Bayard, published on Le Tour du Monde, Paris 1864.

301-400 CE

During the Roman Empire, Ivory was exported from Africa, mostly from Northern African elephants. They were hunted to extinction around the 4th Century C.E. The ivory trade began to decline for several centuries after that. It was estimated around twenty six million elephants once roamed Africa.

800s

By the 800s, the trade in Ivory from Africa began to rise. Ivory was transported from West Africa along the trans-Saharan trade routes to the North African coastline or East African Ivory was transported on boats along the coastline to market cities of north-east Africa or the Middle-east. This is where the ivory would be taken from Africa, across the Mediterranean to Europe, or central and East Asia.

14001700s

During the 1400s Portuguese navigators began to explore the West African coastline, and entered the ivory trade, followed by European sailors. African hunters exclusively acquired ivory during this time period (1500-1700s) and as the demand grew, so the hunters had to be move more inland in search of elephants when populations declined near the coastlines.

Traders relied on rivers in East Africa to transport Ivory from inland out into the Atlantic but this was not so for traders in Central or East Africa where there were fewer rivers. It was not possible to use animals to transport the ivory due to the severity of tropical diseases that infected animals such as horses or camels, therefore humans did the heavy lifting.

ivory souvenirs
Elephant hand crafted ivory souvenirs on sale in India.

1700-1990s

The growth in the ivory trade meant there was a greater demand for more human porters to transport the ivory from inland to the coastlines. Therefore, the ivory trade and the human slave trade went hand-in-hand in Central and East Africa (1700-1990s). The enslaved people were forced to carry the ivory from inland to the coast to where they would be sold alongside the ivory. Ivory was sold at a greater price then enslaved people, however traders made huge profits with each sale.

The barbaric, loathsome slave trade was finally abolished in the later 18th century however the ivory trade continued to decimate African elephant populations. In the 1800s and early 1900s, European Ivory hunters destroyed elephant populations, killing them in great numbers for their tusks (ivory). In the 1900, there were laws put in place to limit hunting of African elephants, recreational hunting still continued for those who could afford the expensive hunting licenses. It is estimated that only 10 million elephants remained in Africa in 1900 and by 1979 only 1.3 million elephants were left. The western world started to realise the consequence of the ivory trade with only 600,000 elephants left in the wild by 1989. Despite this, the Asian demand was beginning to soar.

By 1990, African elephants, excluding those in Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, were added to Appendix I of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), therefore meaning participating countries agreed to prevent the trade of Ivory for commercial purposes. By 2000, African elephants in Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia, were added to Appendix II, which permits trade in ivory but requires an export permit to legally do so.

ivory
Elephant ivory. This ivory is on display in Gaborone airport, Botswana to make a elephant structure.

The ivory trade today

It is estimated 20,000 African elephants are illegally slaughtered for their tusks, with an estimated 415,000 elephants remain across Africa. Even though it is illegal in many countries across the world to trade ivory, some Asian countries continue to fuel the demand for the ivory trade to continue. These countries are under substantial pressure to take immediate action. Ubuntu Wildlife Trust believes that any trade in ivory whether legitimate or illegal, both look the same but one can be publicly displayed once it has been purchased, encourages poachers to continue to kill elephants for their tusks. Therefore, any trade in Ivory from any species should be completely banned to stop the demand and finally put an end to the ivory trade.

The ivory trade continues to threaten the survival of this iconic species and their entire ecosystem as well as endangering the lives and livelihoods of local communities and undermines national and regional security. Controlled legal trade in ivory continues to fail elephants, it isn’t until the last ivory is destroyed and the trade is globally banned, only then can we celebrate elephant’s freedom from the ivory trade.

Ubuntu Wildlife Trust is committed to the war against poaching and the illicit wildlife trade. Please visit our ‘causes‘ page to learn about how we support the men, women and dogs fighting on the frontline to protect wildlife. If you would like to consider supporting our projects, you can donate through our website.

Resources

Hughes, D,(2003) “Europe as Consumer of Exotic Biodiversity: Greek and Roman times,” Landscape Research 28.1 pp. 21-31.

Stahl, A B., & Stahl, P. (2004) “Ivory production & consumption in Ghana in the early second millennium AD,” Antiquity 78.299 (March): pp.86-101.

The History of the Ivory trade – National Geographic