Enlist Ivory Carvers to Help Save Elephants?

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 26, 2003

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Licensing and monitoring ivory carvers could effectively control the illegal poaching of elephants and, at the same time, ease the tensions between conservationists and African countries with ivory surpluses, according to new research.

Elephant conservation and the ivory trade are directly related; the higher the demand for ivory, the more elephants will be illegally killed. How to unlink them has been a matter of sometimes vitriolic debate between pro- and anti-ivory trade advocates.

"There are two contradictory problems," said Daniel Stiles, an anthropologist based in Kenya. "The elephants are threatened if ivory demand is too high, and so conservationists want to ban the sale of all ivory. On the other hand, ivory is a natural resource that African countries want to sell and put the money from the sales back into conservation. How do you reconcile the two?"

Gaining the cooperation of the ivory carvers could be the answer to elephant conservation, said Stiles.

"Raw ivory must pass through the hands of a carver to give it economic and aesthetic value. Shops selling carved ivory pieces have to obtain it from the carving workshop. The workshop is therefore the node for the movement of all ivory, whether legal or illegal."

It's incredibly expensive and difficult to stop elephant poaching using game rangers, he said. It would be much easier to police the carvers than the smugglers, or even retail shops, of which there are hundreds or possibly thousands.

"Convince the carvers to manufacture only high quality, high price, low volume pieces using ivory," said Stiles. "Use bone, bone resin, wood, jade, plastic, and other materials to make the high volume, low quality jewelry and trinkets that are currently being made. This would lower considerably the need for ivory."

Ivory: Boom to Bust

"The global ivory market became so big in the 1980s that African elephant populations were being wiped out," said Stiles. "Around 700,000 African elephants died between 1979 and 1990—over half the total population."

The number of ivory carvers mushroomed to satisfy demand, and the tradition of highly skilled artisans creating artistic items of cultural significance for local markets was eschewed in favor of high volume, low quality jewelry and trinkets.

To curb the slaughter, a ban was placed on the international trade of ivory under a treaty known as the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES, rhymes with nighties). The ban went into effect in 1990.

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