Patting the course, tough, silvery skin as her trunk firmly felt for the food clasped in my hand, I was mesmerised by the beautiful and vast creature in front of me. This was my first meeting with the gentle yet imposing figure of Naam, an Asian elephant in southern Thailand who created a lasting impression.
The sheer scale of these creatures is immense: Asian elephants reach up to 2.7m in height, African elephants up to 3.3m. They weigh between five and six tonnes – the equivalent of three cars – and are the largest land animals in the world. Standing in front of this enormous and unassuming giant, it was difficult to fully comprehend their current battle to survive. Since my first meeting with Naam 10 years ago, the brutal, illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory has spiralled and is reaching a crisis point. The ivory trade forms one of the biggest illegal industries in the world; it is worth an estimated $15-20bn.
There has been an international ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory since 1989. However, there are some exemptions (between countries) as well as variations in domestic regulations. This means that illegal poaching continues to be carried out by individuals and criminal groups who use unregulated and domestic markets to transport and sell their ivory. They inflict unimaginable pain and suffering on these innocent creatures, mercilessly hacking their tusks – sometimes while the elephant is still alive. The extent of these atrocities is threatening the future of the species.
Asian elephants, which are mainly found in India and south-east Asia, have declined by 50% in the last three generations and are now an endangered species. In Africa, the population of elephants in 1979 was 1.3m. It is now just over 400,000 (2016) and declining by around 8% every year. Between 2006 and 2016, it is estimated that more than 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa. The most significant losses were in Tanzania and Mozambique, where, in just five years, 73,000 elephants were slaughtered for their ivory. As a result, some elephant populations in Africa are being poached to extinction.
The effects of elephant poaching are also fundamentally changing the genetics of elephant populations, as in the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa where nearly all (98%) female elephants are now born without tusks compared to an average of 2% to 6% previously. This particular group were poached to the extreme, leaving just a handful of tuskless elephants. They subsequently repopulated, passing down the tuskless gene. And this isn't unique – the number of elephant populations across Africa where it is happening is rising.
These harrowing figures show the profound and devastating effects of elephant poaching. If elephants continue to decline at the current rate, they will become extinct without any action. There is therefore a critical need to ban the trading of ivory. In the EU, the trade of 'raw ivory' is banned, yet astonishingly we in the UK are the world's leading exporter of 'legal' ivory goods – which includes antique ivory manufactured before 1947 or, where appropriately certified, between 1947 and 1990. While this restriction aims to stop the trading of new ivory, it provides a guise to allow newer illegal ivory to enter the market which is continuing to fuel the industry.
The UK government has faced mounting pressure to address this issue and has recently proposed a ban on the trade of nearly all ivory, which is currently out for consultation. Banning it through the UK is a critical step in helping to reduce the demand for ivory nationally and internationally.
France has already introduced a ban on nearly all elephant ivory and amazingly China – which is one of the largest ivory markets – has committed to a ban by the end of 2017. While the US has introduced a ban on nearly all ivory, President Trump recently announced his intention to legalise the import of hunting trophies from Zambia and Zimbabwe. Not only does this signify a frustrating backward step for progress already made, but there are fears that opening up additional channels for importing ivory to the US will inevitably result in illegal ivory too.
Objectors to the ban have argued that historic ivory is culturally significant – for example, having been used in historic works of art – but allowing some types of ivory will inevitably continue to provide a means of bringing in illegal ivory and the only way to end this is an outright ban. Banning the trade of all ivory in the UK is not in itself a solution to stopping the killing of thousands of innocent elephants like Naam. It is, however, a vital part of much wider global action which is needed to protect these magnificent creatures for future generations.
WWF's CEO Tanya Steele recently said: 'This illegal trade involving organised criminals is a global problem requiring global solutions: to end it anywhere means ending it everywhere.'
Katie Crerar presented this paper at a recent Young Scotland Programme. Since it was written, Instagram has announced that it is cracking down on people sharing photographs of themselves with wild animals.