Changing Planet

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.
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
  • Fiona Gordon

    In my view, this is clearly a no brainer – Say No To ALL Ivory Trade – EASY!

    If you have decided the same, please join:
    INTERNATIONAL MARCH FOR ELEPHANTS 4 OCTOBER – more than 35 cities across the globe on the same day with 1 Message “Ban ALL Trade in Ivory”.

    From Toronto to Hong Kong, New York to New Zealand ….the voice of the elephants is getting LOUDER.

    Why a march in New Zealand? Yes, illegal ivory is traded at the bottom of the world too! Latest prosecution for ivory smuggling in Auckland, New Zealand, resulted in a $12,000 fine. A great result, but a drop in the bucket for a lucrative business, likened to the drug and arms trade.

    This is an international issue and it needs an international voice and an international commitment.

    Let’s not allow the Elephant to only exist in our children’s imaginations…….

    Please, join the INTERNATIONAL MARCH FOR ELEPHANTS 4 October 2013 – time is running out. Your children will thank you for it….so will the Elephants.

  • Nikki Elliott

    Thank you so much for putting the agonising reality across so articulately, logically and accurately! What the world needs to know TODAY!

  • MItra

    Enough is enough…but will mankind see the error of its ways before its too late?

  • Lois Olmstead

    On October 4th thousands of people from around the world will march for the elephants. It will be the first time in history that humans will demonstrate for another species. Go to to find a city near you. There are new cities daily. If you don’t find one near you, email us for updated information or start your own demonstration. We can provide you with a leaflet in PDF form to print and to hand out to bystanders.

  • JY Kim

    Thank you for the timely and well-written article. People are still ignorant about the plight of elephants. For example, I was appalled by Tony Makris (‘Under Wild Skies’) for bragging about shooting an elephant but also by the comments suggesting that it’s no big deal or it helps with conservation. We need to accelerate education, not just in China but also in the U.S., which seems to be the second largest market for ivory.

  • Nina Phillips

    We must do all that we can NOW to SAVE these majestic creatures before they are all gone… GREED is driving the force behind their extinction and what a travesty it would be to have to tell future generations that HUMAN GREED is what drove these beauties to their permanent demise!

  • Jo Anderson

    To paraphrase an old photographer’s adage, there are three ways to conserve elephants in the wild, NO TRADE., NO TRADE and NO TRADE! All the facts and arguments are in the blog above, they have been known and accepted by clear thinking field biologists, conservationists and campaigners who have seen the realities in the field over the last 50 years and it is absurd that we are even having to make this case in 2013. The slavery parallel is good. Another might be crack cocaine – there is a pretty healthy “demand” for it in the United States I believe, but this doesn’t mean we are spending time and effort trying to find ways to facilitate and regulate a trade (controlled by corrupt and violent Columbian gangs) in the stuff so that American teenagers can indulge themselves!

  • Lucy King

    An excellent article, very well articulated. Maybe this should be translated into Chinese!

  • Ciska Scheijen

    I agree with Nikki, thanks for giving a voice for elephants! It is important to undertake something at international level against poaching and ivory trade!

  • Jason Rubens

    I agree. Engaging authorities and public in China and elsewhere in East Asia to reduce downstream demand for ivory is probably the only hope. China is changing fast. Throwing resources at anti-poaching is well-intentioned but pointless. .

    By the way how sure are we that Kenya really burned ivory stocks?! There are rumours it was a scam to allow the ivory to be traded behind the scenes …

  • Colin Watkins

    Kate and Trevor are outstanding “field” conservation biologists and have spent long periods, years at a time, in Tanzania particularly in the area of the Udzungwa Mountains. Both have been very seriously ill and their courage is to be admired. They have great ‘stickabllity’ by which I mean determination, persistence and guts.

    Every effort must be made beg the Chinese to persuade themselves to stop using ivory. The Chinese will be not respond much to pressure from Westerners. So if you have Chinese friend or colleague talk to them and see if they will email their countrymen using their own social networks to ask them to desist from buying ivory or accepting it as a gift.

  • Ann Lewis

    I agree with everything in this article, although I have just suggested a constructive use of ivory stockpiles instead of destroying them, fearing that doing so merely signs the death warrant for more elephants while the DEMAND for ivory exists. African Governments could certainly take a stand, but so many now depend on financing from China that this is unlikely to happen. Corruption is a huge factor.
    Surely there must be a way to “encourage” the Chinese Government itself to BAN the sale of ivory altogether? This is the ONLY hope now, with so little time left. It would take a brave consortium of Western Governments to BAN trade in Chinese goods to the West, but it CAN be done. People who care about a world without elephants must lobby their governments immediately and keep the question of the Ivory Trade uppermost in the minds of those with the power to DO SOMETHING.

  • char moreland

    If the answer to this problem is to curtail the purchasing of ivory, how can that happen with China’s infatuation with it? There needs to be a fullscale effort to educate the Chinese & other Asians about the issue & the brutality of the process of obtaining ivory for their “magical” trinkets, jewelry & the status symbol. The education effort should include gruesome images of what actually happens during the harvest of the ivory. How does that happen? I believe China still controlls much of the social media in that country. How would we get around their censorship?

  • Jude Price

    Excellent to see a well articulated counter to the ‘utilisation” argument – have been countering Walker’s article with your Elephants are Not Diamonds article – wherever someone seems swayed by his flawed (and broad) assumptions. Thank you for this to add to the arsenal.

  • Lizette Moolman

    Thank you for this article! I was getting worried after reading Walker’s article, and relieved to see yours. It is worrying that people have a pro-trade view because they are not properly informed. Here in SA I see it all the time. People need the correct info, you are helping with that thanks.

  • Ellen

    It will be slow to change the Chinese gov’t’s mindset about ivory, but it could VERY swiftly change toward elephant conservation and ivory moratoriums with African govt’s persistent and unwavering use of leverage against Chinese dealings on their continent. Africa must find the courage and fortitude to stand up for itself, and this means protecting, at all costs, their precious species and resources. Africa, you can do it!

  • elise ney

    If the world doesnt wake up and shake off it’s apathy, elephants will vanish from this world. We need to STOP the ivory trade, we need to SHUT DOWN the ivory carving factories, WE need stiffer laws for poachers and those demanding ivory. We NEED TO STOP THE SLAUGHTER

  • Christina Tenti

    It’s worse than this. Much worse. Over 300 elephants have been poisoned in Zimbabwe from cyanide. That means every single animal and bird that eats the carcasses or drinks that water is GONE. We must act now.

  • John Frederick Walker

    Katarzyna Nowak and Trevor Jones offered a scattershot critique of my post on legal trade as a political lever to get better ivory trafficking enforcement from the Chinese. Their response contains a number of factually challenged assertions. There’s only space to respond to a few. Some brief points for interested readers:

    On the subject of how many elephants are left in Africa, I relied on the latest update of the authoritative African Elephant Database:

    The figure I gave for how much legal ivory would be available from natural mortality is based on calculations I’ve made elsewhere:'t-go-away

    Nowak and Jones’s critique of trade is dismissive of what they call the “old” argument that “we can save elephants by selling their teeth,” despite the fact that a highly regulated ivory market has never been tried.

    The two “one-off” CITES sales? They failed to stop poaching not because ivory was sold, they failed because there was no guarantee of ongoing supply, critical to any functioning market. Read ivory trade expert Daniel Stiles’s penetrating analysis:

    Nowak and Jones never adequately address the key point I raised in my original post: What would motivate China to put an end its huge illegal ivory market?

    The authors suggest that China’s authoritarian government has the power to “ban all ivory trade immediately” and make it stick. But the ruling party takes a dim view of Western interference with its “internal matters,” and has made it clear that its traditional ivory carving industry is culturally important.

    If, as I wrote in my post, putting an end to China’s illegal ivory market comes at the price of allowing the country to buy more legal (i.e., natural mortality) ivory, it would be well worth it. It would mean most of the money that now underwrites ivory poaching in the African bush and smuggling to final buyers in Asia would dry up.

    All of us who care about elephants have to recognize that difficult choices lie ahead, and that the answers won’t be bumper sticker-sized slogans. That’s why I believe no option, including a reformed, highly regulated ivory trade, should be overlooked or dismissed in the broad effort to deal effectively with the harsh global realities confronting elephant conservation.

    In the end, what’s more important, saving elephants or clinging to anti-ivory ideological purity?

  • John Frederick Walker

    moderator: the link to Dan Stiles’s piece in my previous comment was cut off. The complete link is:

  • Katarzyna Nowak

    On the subject of how many elephants remain in Africa:

    The “definite” 2012 estimate, according to the African Elephant Database, was 422,955. The 2007 estimate was 472,134. Given that PIKE (Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants) was well above 0.5 in all four subregions of Africa in 2011, and a PIKE level of 0.5 or higher indicates a population in net decline, elephants in all four African regions have been in net decline for at least two years (2012 was worse).

    On the subject of finding enough ivory from natural elephant mortalities to supply demand:

    take the flipside of PIKE (“PNIKE”), i.e. elephants not illegally killed and you start to get at how many naturally dead elephant carcasses are actually found (and reported).

    A regulated ivory trade has been tried – the quota system of the 1970s and 80s; it was ineffective in curbing poaching (a million elephants were killed during this time). Thus, the 1989 ban was introduced and led to an immediate drop (by up to 50%) in the market value of ivory.

    The two one-off sales – which would not have been permitted in the first place place were it not for elephant population recoveries in East and Southern Africa following the ban – re-stimulated demand and the ivory carving industry in China, and increased ivory’s market value.

    Is it because there’s “no guarantee of ongoing supply, critical to any functioning market”? Are we talking about iphones or elephants? We can speed up the manufacturing rate of the former, but not the growth and reproduction of elephants, a large, long-living, slowly-reproducing land mammal whose populations are in net decline.

    As for what would motivate China – not “only” the state, but concerned Chinese:

    Please stop propagating the view that these are “Western” concerns.

  • marilynn

    So why did the USA just DESTROY TONS of ivory?? Instead of floodiing the market ? This ensures that MORE elephants will be killed for their tusks…Doesn’t it ????

  • Haibin Wang

    Ivory trade ban is only a red herring to cover the lousy conservation works on the ground. Again China becomes a convenient scape goat. Back in 1990s the use of tiger parts for medicinal use in China was blamed as the major cause for the poaching of tigers in the wild. So China put a categorical ban on the use of tiger products. The ban is effective, completed and acknowledged by repeated international checks. What happens? The ban is still in place today but the poaching of tigers continues or exacerbated. The advocates for tiger ban keep silent, perhaps are taking on ivory issue right away.

  • Vedran Krokar

    You must be joking. Far from being a scapegoat, China is by far the biggest importer of dead tigers, elephant tusks, rhino horns, bear bile, pangolin scales, otter and leopards skins, turtles, snakes… Of course the ban on tiger parts exists…on paper.

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