Ivory has long been valued for its aesthetic qualities, and can fetch prices of up to $1,000 a pound. Ivory comes from elephant tusks, which are type of teeth. Poachers illegally kill elephants in order to harvest and sell their tusks. As a result of the high demand for ivory, elephant populations have dropped significantly in recent years. More than 100,000 elephants were illegally poached from 2010 through 2012. The number of elephants today is likely less than 10% of what it was 100 years ago.
It is estimated that as much as 70% of ivory is imported to China, where carved ivory items are popular and considered a symbol of status. China is not the only consumer of ivory however. The United States, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines also support large markets.
Poaching has become more sophisticated over the last decade. Today, poachers are often part of organized crime operations and armed with military-grade weapons. Some terrorist groups have been linked to poaching activities as well. Rangers, employed to protect the wildlife, are often killed alongside the elephants.
CITES, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, is the foremost international law governing elephants and ivory. CITES offers three levels of regulation with Appendix I being the strongest and Appendix III being the most lax. Originally, African Elephants were listed under Appendix III until they were moved to Appendix II in 1977. During this time from 1977 on, they were governed by a hunting quota system. In 1990, Kenya along with the United States successfully lobbied for African elephants to be listed under Appendix I, banning all legal ivory trade.
However, source countries like South Africa and Namibia, along with consumer countries like China, have opposed the ivory trade ban, and pushed for ivory sales to continue. A few such sales have been allowed in recent years. Other countries, like the U.S. and Kenya have instead burned or crushed stockpiled ivory in attempts to signal that it should not be bought or sold.
In the United States, ivory sales are restricted by the African Elephant Conservation Act, the Lacey Act, as well a several state laws. In the last few years, the Obama Administration has issued a series of executive orders limiting ivory trade. On July 6, 2016, the White House announced a “near-total ban” on objects containing African elephant ivory. Though the regulations do not restrict personal possession of ivory, they prohibit sale and trade African ivory with only a few exceptions (items containing fewer than 200 grams of ivory and artifacts over 100 years old when presented along with verification).
The future of African elephant populations is tenuous, as poaching continues at high rates. Because of the political and economic difficulties faced by many African nations, the majority of conservation efforts have focused on limiting demand for ivory. The United States, however, seems to be moving in a singular direction toward increased protections and trade restrictions.