China's Lust For Ivory Could Make Elephants Extinct

Through their iWorry campaign, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has organized the International March for Elephants on Friday. The orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation group urges people from 15 cities around the world to join them on a peaceful march to raise awareness and encourage governments to take action to protect elephants as the demand for ivory has skyrocketed over the last few years.

The culprit for this jump? China, which went from being responsible for 3 to 4% of global ivory demand to driving almost the entire market over the last five years, according to Quartz. Over the same time period, just in Hong Kong, customs officials seized over 16 tons (over 35,000 pounds) of illegal ivory, which correlates to about 1,800 elephant deaths. There are, meanwhile, only around 400,000 elephants left in the entire world, and more than half of them live in poacher-rich areas. World Wildlife Fund estimates that poachers kill more than 30,000 elephants to fuel illegal trade, which is valued between $7.8 and $10 billion annually. The animals can't reproduce fast enough to replace their dead kin.

A 1989 ban by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) helped curb ivory trade on the black market, and elephant populations rebounded. In an effort to eradicate illegal ivory trade, an international agreement was reached in 2008 that allowed for a one-time auction of a stockpile of African ivory. The proceeds went to conservation, and the auction's supporters hoped the legal supplies would dampen demand, lower prices, and discourage illegal trade.

That didn't happen. The demand rose rapidly for ivory, and the one-time large flood of regulated supplies not only failed to bring down prices, but also made it difficult to differentiate between legal and illegal ivory. Prices didn't decrease because the Chinese government limited the sale of the legal ivory and artificially inflated the prices. Rather, these actions encouraged purchases of poached ivory. In 2011, CITES estimated that the number of illegal trade activities tripled from 1998.

The Chinese treat ivory as a status symbol. During the dynasties, only the aristocracy and the imperial court had the means to ivory, but now, even middle-class Chinese people can afford it, according to Tom Milliken, an expert on elephants for TRAFFIC, which tracks wildlife trade. Since the government has started to crack down on luxury good gift-giving practices, Chinese people have increasingly turned to using this "white gold" for gifts.

Part of the problem driving the Chinese demand is that the consumers of ivory aren't necessarily aware just what a big problem their lust for ivory creates. Joyce Poole, co-director of Elephant Voices, told the South China Morning Post that many Chinese consumers of ivory don't realize that elephants had to die in order for poachers to harvest their precious tusks.

The founder of Save the Elephants, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, told the New York Times that the "Chinese hold the key to the elephants' future." But the responsibility is on everyone to spread the knowledge and help turn public opinion against ivory trade. As long as people still view ivory as a commodity, there will always be money to be made from tusks. Elephants will never be safe from poachers if they could make a profit from killing these creatures.