A Historic Moment in the Battle For Elephants


Iain Douglas-Hamilton

Date Published

The joint announcement made on 26th September that the world’s two great nations, China and America, have agreed to end the ivory trade within their borders is a significant moment in the battle to save elephants. Together China and the US hold the key to the future of elephants, and they have now demonstrated their resolve to use it.

Four months ago statements from Chinese officials indicated that China intended to make the move but called on others to act in concert. President Xi’s with President Obama now commits the two countries to nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, and to halting domestic commercial trade in ivory. This domestic trade, while legal in the past, has acted as a smokescreen for massive illegalities. It is a hugely significant development in harmony with China’s desire to promote ‘Ecological Civilisation’.

This move gives real hope that the demand for ivory that has been driving the destruction of Africa’s elephants can be quashed. Our strategy – in common with an extraordinarily broad coalition of scientists, activists, actors, conservation organisations, politicians and governments – has been to share with China the knowledge of the devastation that has been caused to elephants by people buying ivory.

Our hope now is that the price of ivory will plummet, removing the incentive for the criminals to traffic and poachers to kill elephants for ivory. Save the Elephants has established that 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory between 2010 and 2012, and that ivory prices in China have tripled in the four years between 2009 and 2014 (see our report).

There are signs that this may already be happening. Last year the price of ivory in China did not increase for the first time since the crisis began, and this year there are indications that the price is starting to decrease. Any speculator who borrowed money to buy ivory, banking on elephant extinction, now risks losing his investment, and this could bring about a collapse in ivory prices.

This is the second ivory poaching crisis that I have seen in my fifty years working with elephants. The first occurred from 1971 to 1989, and the second beginning in 2009 and continues through 2015. The second wave of killing is in many ways more serious as there are fewer elephants left to satisfy demand.

The echoes from the past warn us that we cannot rest yet. Corrupt officials and international criminal syndicates will not give up their profits easily. Many vulnerable elephant populations have been so badly hit that they may not recover and human beings may fill the land the elephants have vacated, but it is a good beginning.

At Save the Elephants we have worked with a coalition of like-minded NGOs and helped the world to understand the impacts of the ivory trade. Now we have to keep on the pressure while keeping our dreams focussed.

The vision of a new Ecological Civilisation conjured in China is in harmony with the Pope’s recent calls to heal the “open wounds” of a planet torn by greed, poverty and pollution. We need a new paradigm for life that puts our planet’s ecology – and the wildlife that are its most visible aspect – at its heart.