Trading in Blood: Elephants in Crisis

Updated on February 13, 2017

World's Largest

Out of all the animals that roam the land on our planet, fewer are larger than the elephant. There are currently 3 sub-species of elephant that are recognized by scientists today: the African savannah elephant, the African forest elephant, and the Asian (a.k.a Indian) elephant. One of their most distinguishing features is their trunk, an appendage that is gentle enough that it can pick up a single blade of grass, but strong enough to uproot large trees. Another is their huge flapping ears, which house numerous blood vessels so that when they flap them the blood circulates and they are able to use them to keep cool on hot days.

Asian elephants are much smaller than their African counterparts and while the ears of the African elephants are large and look much like the continent that they reside on, Asian elephants have much rounder ears that are much smaller. Elephant females (known as cows) travel in herds while the males (known as bulls) tend to be more solitary. The gestation period of a female elephant is a long one at nearly 22 months, just about the longest gestation period of any animal. An adult female may give birth to a calf about every 2 years with calves weighing in at about 200 lbs. (91 kg.) at birth.

Elephants are herbivores. They eat roots, grasses, fruit, and bark. In fact, a fully grown elephant can consume up to 300 lbs. of food every day. They use their powerful tusks to dig for roots, to find water, to strip bark from trees, and even to fight each other. In Asian elephants, only the males have tusks, but with their African cousins, it is both genders that have them. Unfortunately, as majestic as their tusks are, they have gotten elephants into a great deal of trouble.

African elephants, like the female pictured here, have much larger ears than their Asian counterparts.
African elephants, like the female pictured here, have much larger ears than their Asian counterparts. | Source

Elephants females live in a matriarchal society, where herds are made up of one dominant female and her possible relatives (daughters, granddaughters, sisters, etc.). The matriarch is the oldest in the herd and she serves as a vast storage vault of knowledge which she delves into in order to make sure she and the rest of the herd can survive. This knowledge is then passed down from generation to generation. For African elephants, both males and females have tusks (whereas for Asian elephants, only the males have them), and in the herd it's the matriarch that always has the biggest tusks. Because of this, it is often the matriarch that gets shot and killed first, and with her gone, her knowledge cannot be passed down to the younger generations which can cause huge disruptions in the social structure, causing nothing but even further destruction.

The Ivory Trade

Elephant ivory has been a valuable trade item throughout Africa and Asia for the last several centuries, with records dating back to the 14th century B.C. Throughout the colonization of Africa, elephant ivory was removed and sent off to become piano keys, billiard balls, and other symbols of exotic wealth. At the peak of the trade in the early 20th century, almost 1,000 tons of ivory were sent to the continent of Europe alone.

2 world wars and the subsequent economic depressions saw a lull in the ivory trade but by the 1970s there had been a definite resurgence. Japan, lifted from its trade restrictions that had been imposed by WWII, began to import raw African and Asian ivory, putting tremendous pressure on elephant populations. They wanted it for the production of hankos, or name seals. Prior to this name seals were made mostly out of wood with an ivory tip, carved with the signature. The recent upsurge in prosperity caused hankos to be sold in mass amounts, with the much softer ivory from Eastern and Southern Africa being sold as part of jewelry and trinkets. For the elephants of Africa, this meant that their population was cut almost directly in half. Savannah elephants were the biggest targets who sported the biggest tusks which meant they took the brunt of slaughter. When these elephants had all but vanished, poachers started looking in the forests for their smaller counterparts. in 1977, an estimated 1.3 million elephants roamed across Africa, but by 1997 only 600,000 remained.Poaching elephants for ivory is not as much of a problem for elephants in Asia as it is for those that roam across Africa, but Asian elephants are still poached for their ivory, meat, and skin. They are also captured for the live elephant trade, and sent primarily to Thailand to be forced to work in the tourism industry.

The Ivory Ban

The 1980's was the peak of the ivory trade, making the time period a disastrous one for elephants. By 1989 the world recognized that elephants were in crisis and banned the commercial trade. The killing slowed, but apparently only temporarily. Since then there have been several attempts to weaken the ban. Wars spilled over into elephant habitats across Africa, and the trade in East Asia began to surge thanks to a burgeoning middle class. There is also a loophole: any ivory that was acquired before the 1989 ban is considered legal, but this is where it gets tricky, as poachers often try to disguise their ivory to make it appear as if aged in order to trick authorities.

Combating Poachers

There are, however, new methods being tested right now that could help combat poachers and test the legality of the ivory acquired. One new method that is currently being tested is called "bomb-curve 14C dating." Much like growth rings are measured to determine the age of a tree, an elephant's tusks also grows several rings over the length of its life, recording the composition of carbon in the atmosphere during the time the animal was alive and consuming plants that had absorbed atmospheric carbon during growth. With this method, experts should be able to determine the age of the ivory which should allow them to figure out whether or not the ivory was acquired legally or not. If the ivory appears to be more "modern" (meaning, it was probably acquired after 1989) then it most likely came from an illegal source.

Boots on the Ground

More often than not, however, it is the people working on the ground that stand between life and death, working to save these majestic, gentle giants. Rangers, who put their lives on the line every single day in order to protect elephants as well as other wildlife from poachers. These brave men and woman face daily trauma, often finding themselves placed in extreme life or death situations. They face the same sort of things that a person serving as a military soldier going into combat often faces. They not only have to routinely face death and torture at the hands of poachers, but they also face dangers from the animals they are fighting to protect, and all the while they are often underpaid and underfunded, without hardly any support.. They know the land, its people, and their hardships. putting their lives on the line on a daily basis to try and make sure that conservation efforts are actually working.

In Conclusion....

The moral of this story is simple: we need elephants. Elephants are beneficial to the planet in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine and they are capable of showing complex emotions and the holding of vast knowledge that is continuously passed down through the generations.

Only when we stop the buying can we stop the killing of these amazing creatures, because when the buying stops, the killing will to.

Asian Elephant Habitat Range


African Elephant Habitat Range

Map of the African forest elephant and African savannah elephants' habitat range.
Map of the African forest elephant and African savannah elephants' habitat range. | Source

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How Can I Help?

Want to know what you can do to help save elephants and their habitat? Here are a few things:

1.) Don't buy ivory. For every piece of ivory that is out there, there is an elephant whose life was sacrificed to acquire it.

2.) Educate yourself! The Internet is a vast resource that can help you learn more about elephants and other animals. You can also head to your local AZA accredited zoo and speak with the experts there about conserving wildlife.

3.) Support conservation efforts! Conservation is essential to the survival of the elephant. There are many, but here are links to a few listed below:

-The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust:

-The Amboseli Elephant Research Project:

-96 Elephants:

- Wildlife S.O.S.:


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