Ivory has been traded for hundreds of years by people in such regions as Greenland, Alaska, and Siberia. The trade, in more recent times, has led to endangerment of species, resulting in restrictions and bans.
Elephant ivory has been exported from Africa and Asia for centuries with records going back to the 14th century BC. Throughout the colonisation of Africa ivory was removed, often using slaves to carry the tusks, to be used for piano keys, billiard balls and other expressions of exotic wealth.
Ivory hunters were responsible for wiping out elephants in North Africa perhaps about 1,000 years ago, in much of South Africa in the 19th century and most of West Africa by the end of the 20th century. At the peak of the ivory trade, pre 20th century, during the colonisation of Africa, around 800 to 1,000 tonnes of ivory was sent to Europe alone. World wars and the subsequent economic depressions caused a lull in this luxury commodity, but increased prosperity in the early 1970s saw a resurgence. Japan, relieved from its exchange restrictions imposed after World War II, started to buy up raw (unworked) ivory. This started to put pressure on the forest elephants of Africa and Asia, both of which were used to supply the hard ivory preferred by the Japanese for the production of hankos, or name seals. Prior to this period, most name seals had been made from wood with an ivory tip, carved with the signature. But increased prosperity saw the formerly unseen solid ivory hankos in mass production. Softer ivory from East Africa and southern Africa was traded for souvenirs, jewellery and trinkets. By the 1980s, Japan consumed about 40% of the global trade; another 40% was consumed by Europe and North America, often worked in Hong Kong, which was the largest trade hub, with most of the rest remaining in Africa. China, yet to become the economic force of today, consumed small amounts of ivory to keep its skilled carvers in business.
1980s poaching and illegal trade
In 1979, the African elephant population was estimated to be around 1.3 million in 37 range states, but by 1989 only 600,000 remained. Although many ivory traders repeatedly claimed that the problem was habitat loss, it became glaringly clear that the threat was primarily the international ivory trade. Throughout this decade, around 75,000 African elephants were killed for the ivory trade annually, worth around 1 billion dollars. About 80% of this was estimated to come from illegally killed elephants.
The international deliberations over the measures required to prevent the serious decline in elephant numbers almost always ignored the loss of human life in Africa, the fueling of corruption, the "currency" of ivory in buying arms, and the breakdown of law and order in areas where illegal ivory trade flourished. The debate usually rested on the numbers of elephants, estimates of poached elephants and official ivory statistics.
Solutions to the problem of poaching and illegal trade focused on trying to control international ivory movements through CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
CITES debate, attempted control and the 1989 ivory ban
Some CITES parties (member states), led by Zimbabwe, stated that wildlife had to have economic value attached to it to survive and that local communities needed to be involved. This was widely accepted in terms of non-lethal use of wildlife but a debate raged over lethal use as in the case of the ivory trade. It was recognised that the "sustainable lethal use of wildlife" argument was in jeopardy if the ivory trade could not be controlled. In 1986 CITES introduced a new control system involving CITES paper permits, registration of huge ivory stockpiles and monitoring of legal ivory movements. These controls were supported by most CITES parties as well as the ivory trade and the established conservation movement represented by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Traffic and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In 1986 and 1987 CITES registered 89.5 and 297 tonnes of ivory in Burundi and Singapore respectively. Burundi had one known live wild elephant and Singapore none. The stockpiles were recognised to have largely come from poached elephants. The CITES Secretariat was later admonished by the USA delegate for redefining the term "registration" as "amnesty". The result of this was realised in undercover investigations by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a small under-funded NGO, when they met with traders in Hong Kong. Large parts of the stockpiles were owned by international criminals behind the poaching and illegal international trade. Well known Hong Kong-based traders such as Wang and Poon were beneficiaries of the amnesty, and elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton commented on the Burundi amnesty that it "made at least two millionaires". EIA confirmed with their investigations that not only had these syndicates made enormous wealth, but they also possessed huge quantities of CITES permits with which they continued to smuggle new ivory, which if stopped by customs, they produced the paper permit. CITES had created a system which increased the value of ivory on the international market, rewarded international smugglers and gave them the ability to control the trade and continue smuggling new ivory.
Further failures of this "control" system were uncovered by the EIA when they gained undercover access and filmed ivory carving factories run by Hong Kong traders, including Poon, in the United Arab Emirates. They also collected official trade statistics, airway bills and further evidence in UAE, Singapore and Hong Kong. The UAE statistics showed that this country alone had imported over 200 tonnes of raw and simply prepared ivory in 1987/88. Almost half of this had come from Tanzania where they had a complete ban on ivory. It underlined that the ivory traders rewarded by CITES with the amnesties were running rings around the system.
To indicate how important the principle of "lethal use" of wildlife was to WWF and CITES, despite these public revelations by EIA, followed by media exposures and appeals from African countries and a range of well respected organisations around the world, WWF only came out in support of a ban in mid-1989 and even then attempted to water down decisions at the October 1989 meeting of CITES.
Tanzania, attempting to break down the ivory syndicates that it recognised were corrupting its society, proposed an Appendix One listing for the African Elephant (effectively a ban on international trade). Some southern African countries including South Africa and Zimbabwe were vehemently opposed. They claimed that their elephant populations were well managed and they wanted revenue from ivory sales to fund conservation. Although both countries were implicated as entrepots in illegal ivory from other African countries, WWF, with strong ties to both countries, found itself in a difficult position. It is well documented that publicly it opposed the trade but privately it tried to appease these southern African states. However, the so-called Somalia-Proposal, presented by the governmental delegation of the Republic of Somalia, of which nature protection specialist Prof. Julian Bauer was an official member, then broke the stalemate and the elephant-moratorium with its ban of elephant ivory trade was adopted by the CITES delegates.
Finally at that October meeting of CITES after heated debates, the African elephant was put on Appendix One of CITES, and three months later in January 1990 when the decision was enacted, the international trade in ivory was banned.
It is widely accepted that the ivory ban worked. The poaching epidemic that had hit so much of the African elephants' range was greatly reduced. Ivory prices plummeted and ivory markets around the world closed, almost all of which were in Europe and the USA. It has been reported that it was not simply the act of the Appendix One listing and various national bans associated with it, but the enormous publicity surrounding the issue prior to the decision and afterwards, that created a widely accepted perception that the trade was harmful and now illegal.Richard Leakey stated that stockpiles remained unclaimed in Kenya and it became cheaper and easier for authorities to control the killing of elephants.
Southern African opposition to the ban
Throughout the debate which led to the 1990 ivory ban, a group of southern African countries supported Hong Kong and Japanese ivory traders to maintain trade. This was stated to be because these countries claimed to have well managed elephant populations and they needed the revenue from ivory sales to fund conservation. These countries were South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland. They voted against the Appendix One listing and actively worked to reverse the decision.
The two countries leading the attempt to overturn the ban immediately after it was agreed were South Africa and Zimbabwe.
South Africa's claim that its elephants were well managed was not seriously challenged. However, its role in the illegal ivory trade and slaughter of elephants in neighbouring countries was exposed in numerous news articles of the time, as part of its policy of destabilisation of its neighbours. 95% of South Africa's elephants were found in Kruger National Park which was partly run by the South African Defence Force (SADF) which trained, supplied and equipped the rebel Mozambique army Renamo. Renamo was heavily implicated in large scale ivory poaching to finance its army.
Zimbabwe had embraced "sustainable" use policies of its wildlife, widely seen by some governments and the WWF as a pattern for future conservation. Conservationists and biologists hailed Zimbabwe's Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) as a template for community empowerment in conservation. The failure to prevent the Appendix One listing through CITES came as a blow to this movement. However, Zimbabwe may have made the career of some biologists but it was not honest with its claims. Arguments that they needed the revenue from the ivory trade for conservation were untrue since ivory sales' revenue was returned to the central treasury. Its elephant census was accused of double counting elephants crossing its border with Botswana by building artificial water-holes. The ivory trade was also wildly out of control within its borders, with Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) involvement in poaching in Gonarezhou National Park and other areas. Perhaps more sinister was the alleged murder of a string of whistle blowers, including Capt. Nleya who claimed the ZNA was involved in rhinoceros and elephant poaching in Mozambique. Found hanged at his army barracks near Hwange National Park, reported as suicide by the army, declared as murder by a magistrate, Nleya's widow was reportedly later threatened by anonymous telephone calls.
As with many international decisions, the debate over ivory trade pits some national interests against other national interests because of the international nature of the issue. To make it more complex it spans different disciplines which include biology, census techniques, economics, international trade dynamics, conflict resolution, criminology – all reported to CITES delegates representing over 170 countries. The decisions made within this agreement have often been highly political. Inevitably, it attracts misinformation, skulduggery and crime.
The southern African countries continue to attempt to sell ivory through legal systems. In an appeal to overcome national interests, a group of eminent elephant scientists responded with an open letter in 2002 which clearly explained the effects of the ivory trade on other countries. They stated that the proposals for renewed trade from southern Africa did not bare comparison with most of Africa because they were based on a South African model where 90% of the elephant population lived in a fenced National Park. They went on to describe South Africa's wealth and ability to enforce the law within these boundaries. By comparison, they made it clear that most elephants in Africa live in poorly protected and unfenced bush or forest. They finished their appeal by describing the poaching crisis of the 1980s, and emphasised that the decision to ban ivory was not made to punish southern African countries, but to save the elephants in the rest of the world.
Southern African countries have continued to push for international ivory trade. Led by Zimbabwe's President Mugabe, they have had some success through CITES. Mugabe himself has been accused of bartering tonnes of ivory for weapons with China, breaking his country's commitment to CITES.
The debate surrounding ivory trade has often been depicted as Africa versus the West.
The novel Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, describes the brutal ivory trade as a wild, senseless wielding of power in support of the resource-hungry economic policies of European imperialists, describing the situation in Congo between 1890 and 1910 as "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience."
However, the southern Africans have always been in a minority within the African elephant range states. To reiterate this point, 19 African countries signed the "Accra Declaration" in 2006 calling for a total ivory trade ban, and 20 range states attended a meeting in Kenya calling for a 20 year moratorium in 2007.
Using criteria that had been agreed upon at the 1989 CITES meeting, among much controversy and debate, in 1997 CITES parties agreed to allow the populations of African elephants in Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to be "downlisted" to Appendix Two which would allow international trade in elephant parts. However the decision was accompanied by "registering" stockpiles within these countries and examining trade controls in any designated importing country. CITES once again was attempting to set up a control system.
49 tonnes of ivory was registered in these three countries, and Japan's assertion that it had sufficient controls in place was accepted by CITES and the ivory was sold to Japanese traders in 1997 as an "experiment".
In 2000, South Africa also "downlisted" its elephant population to CITES Appendix Two with a stated desire to sell its ivory stockpile. In the same year, CITES agreed to the establishment of two systems to inform its member states on the status of illegal killing and trade. The two systems, Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) and Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) have been highly criticised as a waste of money for not being able to prove or disprove any causality between ivory stockpile sales and poaching levels – perhaps the most significant reason for their establishment. They do pull together information on poaching and seizures as provided by member states, although not all states provide comprehensive data.
The effect of the sale of ivory to Japan in 2000 was hotly debated with Traffic, the organisation which compiled the ETIS and MIKE databases, claiming they could not determine any link. However, many of those on the ground claimed that the sale had changed the perception of ivory, and many poachers and traders believed they were back in business.
A seizure of over 6 tonnes of ivory in Singapore in 2002 provided a stark warning that poaching in Africa was not for only local markets, but that some of the ivory syndicates from the 1980s were operating again. 532 elephant tusks and over 40,000 blank ivory hankos (Japanese name seals) were seized, and the EIA carried out investigations which showed that this case had been preceded by 19 other suspected ivory shipments, four destined for China and the rest for Singapore, though often en route to Japan. The ivory originated in Zambia and was collected in Malawi before being containerised and shipped out of South Africa. Between March 1994 and May 1998, nine suspected shipments had been sent by the same company Sheng Luck from Malawi to Singapore. After this, they started to be dispatched to China. Analysis and cross-referencing revealed company names and company directors already known to the EIA from investigations in the 1980s – the Hong Kong criminal ivory syndicates were active again.
In 2002, another 60 tonnes of ivory from South Africa, Botswana and Namibia was approved for sale, and in 2006, Japan was approved as a destination for the ivory. Japan's ivory controls were seriously questioned with 25% of traders not even registered, voluntary rather than legal requirement of traders, and illegal shipments entering Japan. A report by the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society warned that the price of ivory jumped due to price fixing by a small number of manufacturers who controlled the bulk of the ivory – similar to the control of stocks when stockpiles were amnestied in the 1980s. Before the sale took place, in the wings China was seeking approval as an ivory destination country.
The rise of China and the modern poaching crisis
To many conservationists with knowledge of China and its failure to control trade in tiger parts, bear parts, rhinoceros horn and a range of endangered and vulnerable CITES listed species, it seemed unlikely that China would be given "buyer approved" status for ivory. This is because that status would be based on China's ability to regulate and control its trade. To demonstrate the lack of ivory controls in China, the EIA leaked an internal Chinese document showing how 121 tonnes of ivory from its own official stockpile, (equivalent to the tusks from 11,000 elephants), could not be accounted for, a Chinese official admitting "this suggests a large amount of illegal sale of the ivory stockpile has taken place." However, a CITES mission recommended that CITES approve China's request, and this was supported by WWF and TRAFFIC. China gained its "approved" status at a meeting of the CITES Standing Committee on 15 July 2008.
China and Japan bought 108 tonnes of ivory in another "one-off" sale in November 2008 from Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. At the time the idea was that these legal ivory sales may depress the price, thereby removing poaching pressure, an idea supported by both TRAFFIC and WWF.
China's increased involvement in infrastructure projects in Africa and the purchase of natural resources has alarmed many conservationists who fear the extraction of wildlife body parts is increasing. Since China was given "approved buyer" status by CITES, the smuggling of ivory seems to have increased alarmingly. Although, WWF and TRAFFIC who supported the China sale, describe the increase in illegal ivory trade a possible "coincidence" others are less cautious. Chinese nationals working in Africa have been caught smuggling ivory in many African countries, with at least ten arrested at Kenyan airports in 2009. In many African countries domestic markets have grown, providing easy access to ivory, although the Asian ivory syndicates are most destructive buying and shipping tonnes at a time.
Contrary to the advice of CITES that prices may be depressed, and those that supported the sale of stockpiles in 2008, the price of ivory in China has greatly increased. Some believe this may be due to deliberate price fixing by those who bought the stockpile, echoing the warnings from the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society on price-fixing after sales to Japan in 1997, and monopoly given to traders who bought stockpiles from Burundi and Singapore in the 1980s. It may also be due to the exploding number of Chinese able to purchase luxury goods.
International trade in Asian elephant ivory was banned in 1975 when the Asian elephant was placed on Appendix One of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). By the late 1980s, it was believed that only around 50,000 remained in the wild.
There has been little controversy in the decision to ban trade in Asian elephant ivory. However, the species is still threatened by the ivory trade, and many conservationists have supported the African ivory trade ban because evidence shows that ivory traders are not concerned whether their raw material is from Africa or Asia. Decisions by CITES on ivory trade affect Asian elephants. For intricate carving, Asian ivory is often preferred.
Trade in walrus ivory has been conducted for hundreds of years in large regions of the northern hemisphere by such groups as the Norse, Europeans, the Inuit, Russians, the people of Greenland and Eskimos.
According to the United States government, Alaska natives (including Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts) are allowed to harvest walrus for subsistence as long as the harvesting is not wasteful. The natives are permitted to sell the ivory of the hunted walrus to non–natives as long as it is reported to a United States Fish and Wildlife Service representative, tagged and fashioned into some type of handicraft. Natives may also sell ivory found within 0.25 miles (0.40 km) of the ocean—known as beach ivory— to non–natives if the ivory has been tagged and worked in some way. Fossilized ivory is not regulated, and can be sold without registering, tagging or crafting in any way. In Greenland, prior to 1897, it was purchased by the Royal Greenland Trade Department exclusively for sale domestically. After that time, walrus ivory was exported.
Bering Strait fur trade network
In the nineteenth century, Bering Strait Eskimos traded, among other things, walrus ivory to the Chinese, for glass beads and iron goods. Prior to this, the Bering Strait Eskimos used ivory for practical reasons; harpoon points, tools, etc., but about the only time(s) walrus ivory was used otherwise, it was to make games for festivities, and for children's toys.
Moscow is a major hub for the trade in walrus ivory, providing the commodity for a large foreign market.
The people of Greenland likely traded narwhal ivory amongst themselves prior to any contact with Europeans. For hundreds of years since, the tusks have moved from Greenland to international markets.
In the 1600s, the Dutch traded with the Inuit, typically for metal goods in exchange for narwhal tusks, seal skins, and other items.
Trading continues today between Greenland and other countries, with Denmark by far being the leading purchaser.
There is an international export ban of narwhal tusks from 17 Nunavut communities imposed by the Canadian federal government. The Inuit traders in this region are challenging the ban by filing an application with the Federal Court. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans restricts the export of narwhal tusks and other related products from these communities, including Iqaluit, the territorial capital.
Tusks in good condition are valued at up to $450 CAD per metre. The ban affects both carvings and raw tusks.
The Canadian government has stated that if it fails to restrict export of narwhal tusks, then the international community might completely ban exports under CITES.
Tusks are still allowed to be traded within Canada.
After 1582, when Russia conquered Siberia, the ivory became a more regularly available commodity. Siberia's mammoth ivory industry experienced substantial growth from the mid-18th century on. In one instance, in 1821, a collector brought back 8,165 kg of ivory, (from approximately 50 mammoths), from the New Siberian Islands.
It is estimated that 46,750 mammoths have been excavated during the first 250 years since the Russian occupation of Siberia.
In the early 19th century mammoth ivory was used, as substantial source, for such products as piano keys, billiard balls, and ornamental boxes.
Some estimates suggest that 10 million mammoths still remain buried in Siberia.
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