The Future of Africa’s Elephants: Out with Arguments Old, In with Choices Bold

By Katarzyna Nowak and Trevor Jones

The idea that we can save elephants by selling their teeth is a flawed vision that will accelerate elephants down their current road toward near extinction.

In fact, the tide is turning, in favor of destroying ivory stocks and enacting moratoria on domestic trade.

Over the past year, nations on three continents have destroyed ivory stockpiles—Kenya, Gabon, and the Philippines, and now the U.S.—and more nations are set to follow. Just a few days ago, leaders of seven African countries stood with the Clinton Global Initiative to pledge to ban trade of ivory within their borders.

The message emanating from these bold actions is clear: Elephants are running out of time, and we can no longer afford to use ivory.

In the latest perpetuation of the ad nauseam debate, “to trade or not to trade,” John Frederick Walker heralds the vision, “what people want, people get” [News Watch: How China Could Decide the Future of Africa’s Elephants]—a market-based, utilitarian perspective.

Another perspective, another vision, is to stop using ivory.

Some Corrections to Walker’s Post

This is the darkest period in elephants’ history.

While there have been other periods when more elephants were killed, these were from a starting point of millions of elephants.

Walker greatly overestimates the current number of elephants remaining in the wild. In central Africa, scientists showed earlier this year that we lost 62 percent of African forest elephants between 2002 and 2011.

In Tanzania, experts reported to Parliament in April their best estimate that the country (harboring the second largest elephant population in Africa, after Botswana) has lost half its elephants since 2007.

Mozambique is in crisis.

Poaching is escalating in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and parts of South Africa, leaving few, if any, safe havens.

To say there are “500,000” elephants left in Africa is a fantastical overestimate.

The reality is probably closer to 200,000.

In poached populations, older elephants (and, indirectly, their dependent offspring) are killed first.

In Tanzania, demographic assessments demonstrate that several major elephant populations have very few, if any, animals left over the age of 40.

Even the best protected populations around Africa have less than 5 percent of the population in the older age classes with the largest tusks, with less than one percent of adults dying naturally each year (most natural mortality is of infants without tusks).

Moreover, given the scale of poaching across the continent, we think it unlikely that many elephants will be dying of “natural causes” for the foreseeable future.

And over time, with poaching and hunting, tusk size has diminished, and tusklessness is likely to rise as a result of poaching.

Given all of the above, Walker’s assertion of a 100-ton annual “yield” of ivory from natural mortality is a gross overestimate.

Finally, Walker refers to CITES as “studying the implications of resuming trade in ivory.” This so-called decision-making mechanism (DMM) has been heavily criticized as unworkable by over 60 percent of invited stakeholders.


Elephants crossing Olifants River, Kruger National Park. Photograph courtesy of Trevor Jones.
Elephants crossing Olifants River, Kruger National Park. Photograph courtesy of Trevor Jones.


Three Neglected Realities

  • Demand for ivory cannot be controlled or managed.
  • Supply can never be sustainable. Once the surfeit stocks—the “substantial cache” Walker speaks of—are traded, then the supply falls back on found tusks from a long-living, slowly reproducing, large-bodied species that moves across country borders.
  • Legal trading stimulates illegal trading, which authorities have obvious trouble regulating. The well-regulated ivory trade that Walker advocates is a castle in the sky.

Human Behavior Can Change

The pro-trade argument rests on the assumption that human behavior cannot change. Surely, we human beings are more flexible and innovative than this?

We have to make a historic choice.

We can continue to use elephants’ teeth for carvings, trinkets, mobile phone holders, and other banal status symbols, perpetuating demand until elephants are as endangered as rhinos, living only in zoos or within small, unviable, and dysfunctional populations with broken social systems.

Or we can embrace an alternative solution and take a brave step, to stop using ivory. It is not impossible.

We abolished the slave trade because it was indefensible.

We are certainly capable of a more respectful, non-use relationship with elephants, which we know to be intelligent, socially complex animals with emotional lives and at least some understanding of death.

Walker speaks of human ingenuity, and this too has a role to play.

While we have failed to regulate demand for ivory, we have manufactured materials as alternatives to ivory. We have found substitutes for piano keys and billiard balls (e.g. polyester, acrylic). Why can we not manufacture a material that the Asian carving industry can use?

China should ban all ivory trade immediately.

History leaves little doubt that the Chinese government could successfully implement an outright ban if it wanted to. (If limits on human reproduction can be achieved, then so can the outlawing of a dwindling “resource”).

Otherwise, African countries can take the lead—not only through their efforts to apprehend poachers, traders, and smugglers at home but also by placing conditions on China’s economic activities in Africa.

Protecting the environment and other species should be as relevant to international cooperation and trade agreements as more explicitly human issues.


Bull with long trunk in Kruger National Park. Photograph courtesy of Trevor Jones.
Bull with long trunk in Kruger National Park. Photograph courtesy of Trevor Jones.


History will judge our decision, and sooner than we care to imagine.

Twenty years from now, elephants may number only a few thousand, in a handful of isolated and devastated populations.

Equally, elephants could be secure again, and recovering—but only if we can overcome our greed for their teeth.

The trade debate drains energy and attention from providing security for the elephants that remain.

Having reduced elephants from as many as 27 million in the early 19th century to less than one-hundredth of that number today, 200 years later, we have an obligation to the ones we have not killed.

Enough is enough.

Katarzyna Nowak and Trevor Jones direct the Udzungwa Elephant Project in southern Tanzania.


Tuskless female in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania. Photograph courtesy of Trevor Jones.
Tuskless female in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania. Photograph courtesy of Trevor Jones.


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Meet the Author
Katarzyna Nowak is a conservation scientist affiliated with the Zoology Department at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, South Africa. She has spent fifteen years researching and writing about the behavior and conservation of wild monkeys and elephants, and human-wildlife interactions. She helped establish and advises the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program. She's currently based in Colorado's Front Range. Photo credit: Trevor Jones