Life-size Ivory Elephant Sculpture Unveiled in Botswana

A towering elephant sculpture made entirely from ivory tusks will now greet arrivals at Gaborone’s international airport, in Botswana––a poignant symbol of the country’s commitment to protecting wild elephants.

The 2.5-ton sculpture, constructed from the tusks of animals that died of natural causes, was unveiled today by the president of Botswana, Ian Khama, at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport.

A live-size elephant sculpture made of ivory was unveiled at at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Gaborone on 16 July 2015. The ivory cames from the elephants that died naturally. (PHOTO/MONIRUL BHUIYAN)

Speaking at the unveiling, the president said the sculpture was intended “to raise our collective consciousness about the plight confronting the African elephant.”

The most recent estimate of elephant numbers in Africa, from 2007, is between 472,000 and 600,000. Around a third of them are within the borders of Botswana.

Poaching rates of elephants have surged during the past three years, fueled by rising demand for illegal ivory in Asia, mostly China. A 2014 study revealed that between 2010 and 2012, up to 100,000 elephants were slaughtered for their ivory.

The placement of the elephant sculpture at Botswana’s capital city airport is symbolic, as it represents the international dimension of the illegal ivory trade, president Khama said.

“Much of the ivory that leaves the borders of African elephant range states finds its way out in the cargo holds of aircraft and the baggage of passengers.”

BOTSWANA , Gaborone 16 July 2015, Botswana president let Gen. Seretse Khama Ian Khama officially unveils the live size Elephant Sculpture of  ivory at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Gaborone on 16 July 2015. The ivories comes from the elephants which died naturally.  (PHOTO/MONIRUL BHUIYAN)
A reminder of Botswana’s commitment to saving elephants greets arrivals at the airport. (PHOTO/MONIRUL BHUIYAN)

The president commended the efforts by Prince William and the Royal Foundation, who recently set up a task force that will work to shut down the transport arteries of the criminal syndicates who run the illegal ivory trade.

Khama also called upon countries that conserve elephants—the range states—in Africa to join the Elephant Protection Initiative. Launched by the Botswana government, this project strives, among other things, to close all domestic ivory markets.

“Legal ivory trade cannot and must not be used to launder the illegal ivory in the hands of the criminal syndicates,” he said. (Read: As Animal Poaching Surges, Organized Crime Plays Bigger Role.)

BOTSWANA , Gaborone 16 July 2015, Botswana president let Gen. Seretse Khama Ian Khama officially unveils the live size Elephant Sculpture of  ivory at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Gaborone on 16 July 2015. The ivories comes from the elephants which died naturally. (PHOTO:MONIRUL BHUIYAN)

Six artists––coordinated by Joseph Piet––took three full months to complete the ivory sculpture. The sculptors came from a youth artist, community-based project called Thapong Visual Arts, based in Gaborone.

Khama congratulated all those involved in the work. He said the elephant “will serve as a reminder to all who pass through this building that one live elephant is worth so much more than all the pieces of art made from ivory gathering dust in homes far removed from the African plains.”


Paul Steyn is a freelance journalist from South Africa. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel magazine, and now focuses on environment and science writing, travel and photography. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Paul Steyn is a widely-published multi-media content producer from South Africa, and regular contributor to National Geographic News and blogs. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel and wildlife magazine, and now focuses on nature storytelling in all its forms. In 2013, he joined a team of researchers and Bayei on a 250km transect of the Okavango Delta on traditional mokoros. In 2016, he accompanied the Great Elephant Census team in Tanzania and broke the groundbreaking results on National Geographic News . Contact: paul@paulsteyn.com Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram
  • Debbie

    I do not think this is appropriate and could have been done in some other type of media. It may encourage others to use ivory for art.

  • Olebile

    Debby here in Botswana we think its appropriate and we love it.

  • Olebile

    Debby here in Botswana we love it.

  • Van Rakshak

    This is idiotic. On one hand we’re urging countries to destroy their ivory stockpile and on the other we’re allowing this country to make a statue. Does no one see the irony in this?

    And what is its purpose? To invite people at an airport? This is an insult to every conservation effort all over the world. Preposterous.

    And out of all the places on the internet, I’m reading this story on National Geographic. Nothing is sacred anymore. Disgusted.

    • Paul Steyn

      I don’t see why this is an insult to conservation efforts. If anything, it’s a symbol of the great job Botswana is doing in protecting their elephants. They have next to no poaching of eles and the country has become a type of refugee haven for the animals. To your point, there’s much debate about whether burning stockpiles has any conservation value at all, other than to generate publicity. In many respects this statue and the attached message will have far greater impact on far more people passing by it than any once-off burning effort.

  • Toks

    I totally agree with Van Rakshak’s post. As soon as I saw the headline, I wasn’t sure whether to expect that the unveiling would be celebrated or chastised. It definitely sends mixed messages and would surely encourage people to use ivory for “art.” Mixed messages!

  • Barbara McMillan

    I think its very effective, and hope it will have the desired result. I do hope there will be no opportunity for interference.
    It appears your correspondent above has missed the point, or failed to read the accompanying information.

  • elaine

    this makes me a little ill…it’s like using the skin of dead people who des of natural causes

  • Kathy Davis

    The elephant tusk should be used only by the elephant. Any other usage, including art, is just obscene.

  • ANN A

    Although it may look like an attractive piece of art, it still seems a bit twisted to use the ivory instead of burning it.

  • Gilli Sleigh

    I think that the statue is very evocative, and that the message IS confusing but we’ll intended, on the one hand it is a way of saying “hey look syndicates we don’t sell you our ivory, we make a symbol of how valuable our elephants are to us ALIVE!” and the other hand it’s like publicly preserving the ivory in plain sight as a known valued commodity.

    My first reaction was horror, but that was because of the fact that all those tusks represent dead eles, but knowing and trusting that they all died from natural causes does make it into a sensitive monument to the beloved species.

    I did find it difficult to get my head around it, I do think that it sends a mixture of tangled messages that will make people THINK and talk about the horrific situations in other African countries, and to appreciate Botswana for her stand against rank commercialization of wildlife, and as a model for how well tourism supports true conservation.

  • Percy Washington

    Beautiful, well done Botswana

  • Liz

    It sickens me to see ivory being burned or used as art. Can we instead, create a governing body that allows ivory collected only from elephants that die from natural causes to be sold into the market legally, controlled & certified, much the way diamonds are? Sadly demand for ivory will never go away, but by allowing elephants to live a long, full and beautiful life and collecting the ivory after their natural death and selling it in this way it could save many elephants from a horrible and premature death and all but decimate the illegal ivory trade. Profits from this could then be used by the African governments for conservation of elephants and other endangered African animals. If we do not change the way things are in a substantial way we may well see these magnificent creatures disappear one day and that would be a terrible loss. Once they are gone they can never come back.

    • Paul Steyn

      Liz, there’s no evidence that a legal trade in ivory will have any effect on reducing poaching of elephants. It is a huge risk. It might only legitimize the criminal syndicates dealing in ivory and other wildlife products. We don’t know enough about how the market works (and how big it is) to judge whether this strategy will work, or accentuate the problem.


    so most of you find it offensive to turn ivory into art , you would prefer them burnt or destroyed ??????? really now !!! how is that going to benefit anyone .. people of Botswana should benefit from the ivory of elephants that died a natural as much as other counties benefit from their natural resources….

  • kathy ames

    It is poignant, clever, eye catching and thought provoking. The fact that so many are talking about it proves all of that. If it makes even one person think twice about the lives of elephants and the need to nurture and protect them, then it has done well.

  • Louise

    I think that both the elephant and it’s ivory are beautiful and to use one to honour the other is a wonderful statement. I hope this monument helps create awareness to the elephants plight and that your country wins the fight against the illegal ivory trade.

  • Captain

    Good work Botswana, that is what we call conversation, you find it fit to use those ivory to make art work rather than destroying them. Very impressive .

  • Kerapetse Bantu Peter

    Thank you Mr Paul Steyn. You are a conservationist I guess. Thank you so much for helping us preach the intended message of this sculpture. I do no not know why people do not just keep quiet if they do not have any idea to share. It is better to spread the message with a sample so hat people can really see the damage we are talking about rather than just a word of mouth. Creativity is what we are aiming for.

    Big Up to you our President and Botswana.

  • Barbara

    I think it is sending the wrong message. Ivory for art is just a bad as ivory for any purpose but protruding from an elephant’s face.

  • Seeletso Dialwa

    Wow…… creative and beautiful….

  • Montebello

    Nice attempt but this is a huge backfire in my opinion. I just saw the ivory elephant at the airport and the plaque provides no explanation nor education – hence one is left to assume the government is condoning the use of ivory in artwork poached or otherwise. Disgusting

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