The Ivory Curse

African elephants once inhabited the entire African continent, from the Mediterranean down to its southern tip. But the ivory trade (White Gold) coupled with human expansion caused a sharp decline in their numbers.

Elephants are among the most exploited animals in human history and probably no other wildlife ‘product’ influenced so much the fortune or misfortune of an entire continent like ivory. Ivory was sought after by Indians, Romans, Arabs, Persians, the Chinese, and later on the Portuguese, the Spanish and the British Empire. Ivory facilitated and funded slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries and was a big financial incentive for the colonial exploitation of Africa.

Today ivory is a very good source of funding for armed rebels and terrorists all over Africa, from Somalia to the central and western African countries.

There are ‘blood diamonds’ and there is also ‘blood ivory’.

A few numbers to describe the elephant’s tragedy in Africa:

By about 1600, elephants had disappeared from North Africa.

27 million elephants in the early 19th century

5 million at the beginning of the 20th century

1.3 million elephants in 1981

700,000 in 1988

600,000 in 1990 (international ban on ivory trade is implemented)

500,000 by 1998

400-500,000 now (with 35-40,000 elephants killed each year)

The reason of this elephant holocaust is one: the ivory demand from Asia.

The previous massacre of the ’70s and ’80s was driven by Japan’s economic boom. Now China’s new affluent class drives the ivory demand. The main consumers are middle-aged men who are eager to make expensive purchases to show off their wealth and investors who consider ivory to have the same value as gold.


Unnoticed and unknown to the general public, the holocaust of the African Elephant continues, despite the international ban on ivory trade.

Like in north Cameroon on January-February 2012, where almost 500 elephants were killed in two months. At least half of the population of the important Bouba N’Djida National Park was gone in a few weeks.

In Sierra Leone, in 2011, the country’s entire elephant population was confirmed wiped out.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, in about 48 hours in March 2012, a total of 22 elephants in four groups were rounded up and killed in Garamba National Park during a helicopter-borne attack by professionals. As reported by some media, after the massacre the poachers removed their tusks and genitals before likely smuggling them through South Sudan or Uganda; one of the many ‘ivory roads’ linking Africa to Asia. The use of helicopters, probably military, is not new and since they are expensive their use points once again to a high level of organization. Even in more touristic and differently managed countries the situation is tragic, like Tanzania, where international poachers with local connections kill an average of 20 elephants every month.

In Tanzania, which stores the world’s largest stockpile of elephant tusks in the world, 90 metric tons, 30 elephants a day are killed by poachers!

In Kenya, despite the presence of tourists and the efforts of the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), official figures report 187 elephants poached in 2010, 289 in 2011 and 384 in 2012. In this country a real ‘ivory war’ is going on. Several KWS rangers were killed in the line of duty in 2012, including the first female ranger in Kenya, Florence Hadia Abae, pregnant and the mother of a small boy. This is also the ivory trade.

Poaching rates across Africa are difficult to establish with precision. Some estimate that 10% of the entire African elephant population is actually being killed annually. Others estimates are a little bit more conservative and talk about 100 elephants killed every day, which still makes a total of 36,500 elephants killed yearly. But real numbers could be MUCH higher.

Without any doubt 2011 and 2012 were the worst year for elephant poaching since records began in 1990.



Asian elephants were historically found in the millions throughout the continent, from Mesopotamia and West Asia eastward into South East Asia and China.

Now they face almost certain extinction in almost every place they exist. Almost one out of three Asian elephants in the world live in captivity.

The Asian elephant is now extinct in West Asia, Java, and most of China, and survives in isolated pockets scattered across Asia.The population of Asian elephants has declined significantly in recent decades, and the species is considered ‘endangered’, which can be translated as being in very high risk of extinction in the wild.

For example, about 100 years ago there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand. It is believed that there are only 3,500 left. Vietnam has less than 100.

The greatest threat to Asian elephants is probably habitat loss and resulting conflicts with people. They are shot, poisoned, run over by trains or simply starve to death.

The other serious threats include ivory poaching and illegal capture of wild elephants for work or tourism camps. Elephants are still caught each year for the timber industry or as tourist attractions, and very cruel capture methods lead to a high mortality level. The illegal trade in live elephants and ivory across the Thailand-Myanmar border has become a serious conservation problem. Elephant babies can be purchased for $10,000 along the border.

An estimate of only 30,000-40,000 individuals survives in the wild and about 15,000 live in captivity, often in dire conditions.


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