Many of the world’s largest herbivores are threatened with extinction, scientists reported last week in Science Advances. Some of them, such as giraffes and zebras, are at risk because they are hunted for their meat. But elephants, which also make the threatened list, are prized not for their flesh but for their two large ivory tusks. For millennia, people have used ivory for everything from piano keys to false teeth to figurines. And despite plastic having long ago replaced ivory for commonplace items like buttons, trade in ivory has tripled since 1998 largely due to rising demand in Asia.
That trade thrives in some unlikely places. The International Fund for Animal Welfare, for instance, recently found hundreds of pieces of ivory worth millions of dollars being advertised on Craigslist within the United States — despite the site’s policy of prohibiting trade in animal parts. Craigslist responded to the report by adding ivory to its list of prohibited items, but IFAW notes that the list is pretty easy to ignore. IFAW recommends making those rules more visible and automatically alerting Craigslist staff when someone lists ivory or other elephant products on the site. But who knows how effective that will be. (And another recommendation to implement search filtering that would prevent people from searching for the term “ivory” is probably a non-starter — people selling ivory-colored products, such as wedding dresses, are sure to object.)
After IFAW discovered ivory objects for sale on eBay and Etsy, those companies began working with law enforcement to reduce the wildlife trade on those sites. And IFAW would like Craigslist to follow suit.
But the United States isn’t really the big problem — it’s Asia, and particularly China. Not only is ivory incredibly popular there, but there’s actually a subset of wealthy people who are stocking up on products made from elephants and other endangered species as investments, banking on extinction to make those products more valuable in the near future.
I was pleased to see last year that former NBA star Yao Ming has taken up the elephant cause and now campaigns against the ivory trade in China. His previous work with the group WildAid led to a decline in popularity of shark fin soup and a reduction in shark fin sales. Hopefully he will be as influential with ivory because as long as ivory is in demand, people will be willing to kill elephants so they can take home a tidy profit.
For the African elephant, there may be yet another problem: There is no “African elephant.” There are actually two species of African elephant, forest (Loxodonta cyclotis) and savannah (L. africana), and many conservation groups don’t differentiate, Alfred Roca of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and colleagues noted in the February Annual Reviews Animal Biosciences. Grouping all the African elephants together and assuming that all the populations are interchangeable puts both species at risk, the researchers warn. “It's like saying, ‘We increased the lion population, which will more than make up for the fact that tigers are going extinct,’” Roca said in a statement.
Will there be any elephants left when I am old and gray? With the rate at which poachers are killing the animals for their ivory — 100,000 were killed in just three years — and inadequate plans for saving the creatures, I worry that the answer to my question increasingly looks like “no.”