A World Without Elephants? Blame China

The planet’s elephant population is plummeting, and they may go extinct within the next 20 years, thanks in large part to China’s lust for ivory.

Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty

The presence of the Africa summit here in Washington directs our attention to a range of matters we don’t pay quite enough attention to—the global AIDS crisis, what used to be called “Third World” development, and more. But here’s what may be the most important one to me, put in the form of a question that I think every adult human being on the planet, especially those in China, ought to be asking themselves on a fairly regular basis: Do we want to be the human beings who eradicated elephants from the face of the Earth?

If you pay no attention to things like this, that question shocks you, maybe to the point that you think I’m being ridiculous. But if you do pay attention, then you know very well the situation I’m describing: The vicious trade in ivory could lead to the extinction of the species in 20 years or even less. The number of elephants in Africa has gone from around 1 million to roughly half that in the last 35 years. And the population is falling even faster now.

The story is this. When humans first became alarmed at the vast proportions of the slaughter of these astonishing animals back in the 1980s, a worldwide ban on the ivory trade was enacted by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It worked. Poaching fell off dramatically, and the black market price of ivory dropped.

But then some countries with large elephant populations began unilaterally disobeying the ban. Unsurprisingly, the thuggish Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was among the first, along with then-apartheid South Africa. By 1997, the ban had pretty much collapsed, and in 1999, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia were permitted a “one-off” legal sale of 108,000 pounds of ivory to Japan. Tusk weights vary a lot, but that’s maybe 1,400 dead elephants.

There was another “one-off” sale in 2002, and then in 2008, the big one: After some aggressive lobbying by China in particular, CITES approved a sale of 110 tons of African ivory to China and Japan (which split it 60 tons to 50, respectively) on the theory that legal sales of large ivory stockpiles might depress the price and thereby slow poaching. The opposite happened—China controlled the supply of legal ivory tightly, which meant the demand was being met by the illegal stock. Today, ivory prices are at record highs, having tripled since that 2008 auction, up to around $1,500 a pound.

Blame the African countries and the amoral people who go into the savannahs and the forests and slaughter the animals. The governments of Africa are trying, or at least some of them are. A report on NPR Tuesday morning featured a number of African heads of state speaking at this week’s summit about their need for “high-tech help” to fight the poachers. “When the four presidents were asked what they need from the United States, the answers revealed how militarily sophisticated the poachers have become,” reported NPR’s Gregory Warner. “Namibia asked for light attack helicopters. Tanzania for night-vision goggles. Togo for infrared scanners to use at its port.”

Blame also Japan, along with Thailand and Vietnam. Blame the United States, too. There still is a trade for ivory here, although the Obama administration to its credit did just consummate a ban on the commercial import of African elephant ivory. The ban is opposed by—well, guess who? The NRA. Because there’s ivory in some antique guns. The new regs say: “Personal possession of legally acquired items containing elephant ivory will remain legal.” This hasn’t stopped the NRA from announcing that the ban will turn gun owners into criminals overnight. Congressional members of the Republican Party, which may have to ditch its mascot in 20 years and find an animal we didn’t obliterate, are rushing to its aid.

Blame them all. But most of all blame China and the despicable hunger of its status-conscious middle class for baubles of worked ivory. And of course the government, which promised as it lobbied to participate in the 2008 sale to create effective enforcement systems for monitoring both tusks and worked ivory. It did neither, according to Allan Thornton, the head of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington- and London-based nonprofit that conducts undercover investigations to expose environmental crimes, including those against wildlife. “They really just didn’t have the political commitment to enforce anything,” Thornton says.

Thornton says pressure is building, even inside China, for a ban. Yao Ming, the former NBA star who’s an icon there, has lent his prestige to the campaign. “We can only save African elephants if China and Japan ban the ivory trade,” Thornton told me. “That’s the only way to stop it, so that enforcement can be more effective.”

You shouldn’t need me to tell you what magnificent creatures elephants are. The marvels of elephant cognition are well known. They possess complex intelligence. They have rich emotional lives. They laugh and they cry. They use tools. They have enough self-awareness to recognize themselves in a mirror (think about that). They paint. Not walls. Art.

They practice altruism. They have compassion. They form extraordinarily sophisticated communal societies. They hold funerals for their deceased and have well-established mourning rituals. They’ve been known to help others species in need. Even humans. And as they’re probably aware of what we’re doing to them, they’re surely smart enough to know that that was their fateful error.