Facts about elephants and their Ivory

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Mikumi National Park - Tanzania, the elephant staggered and collapsed over in the tall grass in Southern Tanzania, where some of the world’s worst poaching has happened. It wasn’t a poacher who targeted her but a conservation official, immobilizing her with a dart containing drugs. Shortly after she was snoring loudly and while they kept open her trunk with a twig to help her breathe, they slid a 26-pound (12-kilogram) GPS tracking collar around the rough skin of her neck then injected an antidote, bringing her back to her feet. After inspecting the device with her trunk, she ambled back to her family herd. The procedure was part of a yearlong effort to collar and track 60 elephants in and around Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, widely acknowledged as ‘Ground Zero’ in the poaching that has slaughtered Africa’s elephants in recent years.

Elephants have been hunted and killed for their ivory for decades if not centuries.

Elephant Facts

Elephants, with an average life span of 70 years, are very long-lived animals. They also show a rich and complex social life and potentially have large short- and long-term effects on the environment they live in. African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) are keystone generalist herbivores that range widely for seasonally variable resources and have extraordinary spatial memory. Female elephants form stable and secure social groups with overlapping generations that aid in prolonged learning. This close knit social structure is believed to have evolved in part to enable elephants to successfully utilise large and complex landscapes. Transmission of knowledge across generations is thought to be a key aspect of this process. An unusual feature of elephants is the existence of a male reproductive cycle, the musth. It has been shown that musth is tightly correlated with testosterone levels in wild male elephants.

Males are solitary, only going a herd briefly in mating season.

Elephants have complex social structure and high cognitive abilities. Savanna elephants use acoustic signals for mate-searching, male–male competition, and maintaining social bonds. They recognise low frequency “seismic” calls—transmitted through both air and ground over a range of many kilometres, and use them to mediate inter - and intra-group social encounters. A female savanna elephant can know and recognize vocalizations of an average of 14 different families, including about 100 adult females, allowing her to communicate effectively with over 20% of the population.

Elephants have been shown to benefit other animal species. Damage to tree canopies, increases local and landscape- scale habitat heterogeneity, and elephants can increase the availability of food and shelter for co-occurring species by acting as disturbance agents. For example, the breaking of tree trunks and toppling of adult trees aids smaller mammalian herbivores by increasing access to the leaves at the top of the trees and reduced predation risk. Similarly, bark peeling and branch splitting can increase microhabitats and create safe refuge for small vertebrates and insects. For these reasons, elephants are among the most important ecosystem engineers in savannas. Ecosystem engineers such as beavers, large trees, woodpeckers, kelp forests, and burrowing animals create ecologically important physical changes in their environment, changes which aid other species as well as for the engineer.

Elephant herds are lead by female a dominant female called the matriarch. She is usually the oldest member of the herd.


There are many reasons why elephants are poached, examples include, bush meat, furniture and the use of its skin. However, the most prized possession is its tusks which is made out of ivory. The uses for ivory include mounted Chinese carving, cigarette holders as well as being bought in its original state and placed as a status symbol in homes. The conservation of savannah (Loxodonta africana) and forest (Loxodonta cyclotis) elephants in Africa is a problem of urgent worldwide significance, as the recent upswing in poaching has caused reductions of up to 60% in elephant populations across the African continent. Demand for ivory, in order to supply Asian markets despite an international commercial trade ban, is decreasing or eliminating elephants in large amounts from their former range, with the latest surveys suggesting tens of thousands of elephants have been poached over the last 5 years from Tanzania and Mozambique alone. Suggested conservation responses to this issue have included decreasing ivory demand in Asia, increasing ways for local communities to act as elephant stewards and enforcing the ability of frontline conservationists to prevent elephant poaching.

The latter two points require range-country governments to amplify their investments in elephant conservation efforts. However, given other pressing development priorities that compete for limited funding and attention, it is very difficult to justify conservation via a return-on-investment basis, as the tangible economic benefits of biodiversity conservation are rarely understood. (Ivory 4). Female elephants present matriarchal social structure, and older adults are connected to resource access, ecological and social knowledge and calf survival. Ivory poaching tends to target older animals for their larger tusks, reducing population age structure. Since matriarchs are targeted, this causes orphaning and changes the family unit structure. The ability of orphans and families that have lost their mature adults to survive within their changing landscapes is a concern for population recovery.

This elephant was having loads of fun with bath time.

There are concerning statistics on extinction and the areas over which still remaining species have lost their habitats. The African savanna is no exception. Human disturbance cuts out many species from large portions of their historical range, and poaching threatens animals, even where they are supposedly protected. Some of the protected land that covers 13% of Africa struggle to keep off large mammal declines. Poaching claimed 6.8% of Africa's elephants (Loxodonta africana) annually from 2010-2012, upwards of 100,000 elephants. These losses are important because elephants play a great role in savanna ecosystems. They affect the structure of the physical environment, disperse seeds, create microhabitats, and tend to dominate mammalian biomass. Elephant presence engenders greater species diversity. Thus, human-mediated reductions in elephant densities will have cascading effects on other savanna species. Unsurprisingly, there are regular elephant surveys, and elephants have the most comprehensive database on the conservation status of any mammal species. Despite this, there are no estimates of how many elephants we should expect there to be. How big would particular populations grow if afforded the chance? The lack of context is a serious omission given the ecosystem importance of elephants and the consequent imperative to conserve elephants effectively. Overall, 70% of the current distributional range of African elephants may fall outside of protected areas. Yet, protected areas should be the stronghold for elephants on the continent, given that they should receive a concentration of funding, management, and law enforcement. This doesn’t bode well for elephants and their ecological roles, within and beyond protected areas.

Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) occur in several secluded and broken populations distributed across 13 countries of South and Southeast Asia. Their historical range of 9 million km2 extended from West Asia along the Iranian coast into the Indian subcontinent, eastwards into Southeast Asia including Sumatra, Java, and Borneo, and into China at least as far as the Yangtze-Kiang. Today, elephants have been reduced from nearly 95% of their historical range and their distributional range has reduced to less than 500,000 km2. Asian elephants are classified as Endangered globally and listed in Schedule 1 Part 1—the highest protection status accorded to a species in India—of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. Due to the fact that elephants are habitat generalists with a wide geographic distribution and have an iconic status in religion and popular culture, they are a powerful flagship for conservation. However, rapid and widespread habitat degradation and loss due to infrastructure expansion and developmental activities, poaching, farming expansion and other negative human–elephant interactions continue to pose threats to the remaining Asian elephant populations. India is thought to hold an estimated 24,000–33,000 Asian elephants, or 60% of the global population. Of these, over one-fifth—the largest fraction in an Indian state—are believed to occur in the southern state of Karnataka.

For roughly the last 30 years, a total population estimate of 30,000–50,000 elephants continues to be stable despite Asia having undergone dramatic human population growth and large landscape transformations, including vast deforestation and the expansion of palm oil plantations in, especially, Indonesia and Malaysia during this time.

The poaching crisis for African elephants (Loxodonta africana), driven by the illegal ivory trade, has been documented at length and receives much international attention in the media and scientific literature. Poaching of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) for ivory has been a major threat to the species, however because only male Asian elephants have tusks and the amounts of tusked males varies between 10% -90% in different areas, this form of death has affected some populations more than others.

More elephants being silly during bath time.

Ivory Trade agreements across nations

There has been considerable concern over the ivory trade, and the damage caused to Africa’s wild elephant population, on the part of countries who have historically been consumers of ivory goods. Elephant populations have declined from 1.3 million in 1979 to 352,000 today. In taking the lead African countries are displaying two things: that they see the illegal wildlife trade as a worldwide issue, and that they aren’t afraid to say so. This recent stance is precisely what wildlife campaigners have wanted to see. In putting African demands for change by the EU central to the ivory trade debate we are seeing a shift in paradigm that could do more for elephant conservation than a montage of international conferences. The message from Botswana’s President Ian Khama message was loud and clear: close your ivory markets and stop fueling the poaching of our elephants. EU rules mean that these older ivory items can be sold within the EU and re-exported from the EU, as long as sellers have the correct documents. It’s a similar case for the UK. It is legal to purchase and sell ivory in the UK so long as they have the correct CITES certification. The most common exception is with regards to the sale of antique ivory – defined as pre-1947 worked ivory. This means that the elephant ivory came from before 1947 and that any carving or working to the product took place before this date as well.

Elephants use their trunks for a variety of uses such as, drinking, eating, communication and breaking trees down.

183 states are signatories to CITES. This bans the commercial international trade in species listed on Appendix I, under which most African elephants fall. However, ivory can still be sold legally in several European and Asian countries. And, there is evidence that signatories are falling short in regards to complying with the regulations. One stand out example is Japan. Although Japan signed the 1989 (29 years ago) convention banning the global trade in ivory, it has been alluded to that Japanese sellers are registering tusks that are of undetermined origin. The EU and the UK are now in the driver’s seat to end their historic links to the ivory trade. Though the law is yet to be signed, the British environment secretary has said that the sale of ivory of any age, with limited exceptions, will be banned in an effort to decrease the amount of elephant poaching. This comes after consultations which ended in December 2017. This was agreed upon from a 12-week public consultation on an ivory trade ban at the end of 2017.

Over 3,000 WWF supporters submitted their views, aiding to the overwhelming majority of responses in favour of the ban. The ban will include some limited exemptions for products which do not contribute to the poaching of elephants. This includes items containing less than 10% ivory made before 1947 and instruments containing less than 20% ivory made before 1975. There will also be fewer exemptions for accredited museums and for rare or important items more than 100 years old, which will be assessed by specialist institutions before exemption permits are issued. along with this Taiwan’s announced its plan to ban its domestic ivory trade starting on 1 January 2020.

Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila on Sunday set alight an ivory stockpile to create awareness the problem of poaching in the central African country. The president also released five grey parrots and set fire to a stockpile of pangolin scales in a ceremony at the Nsele Nature Park just outside of Kinshasa.

Studies have depicted that the tourism value of a live elephant is 50 times the value of a dead elephant’s tusks. Even with such steps, elephants will continue to face challenges as increased human population growth in Africa and Asia encroaches on their habitats. Still, serious measures by countries that have been traditional consumers or exporters of elephant ivory to close down their commercial markets will go a long way toward reducing inducements for large poaching and trafficking operations.

O...Hello there, how do you do.

Tunda Tunda (a poacher) says he already spent a year in jail for a separate poaching incident. But his choices are few and far between. He would do anything to help his family escape relentless poverty. "I went poaching because I was suffering, I had nothing to survive and I am desperate," he says. The poachers who kill the elephants are normally poor and just looking for a way to feed themselves or their families. Often, they don't have alternatives to wildlife crime. "Poverty is causing poaching in Mozambique. Even if the Chinese ban is put in place at the end market, it is different for poachers on the ground. They seldom read the papers, they don't have TV sets or internet. They will carry on poaching to build up stock for buyers," says the intelligence agent. The harsh truth is that even if the Chinese government bans the trade effectively in the long run, it may not be enough to eliminate those who turn to poaching from a life of poverty.

The 70th gathering of the Standing Committee to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES) got off to a dismal start with a decision that China, Kenya, Philippines, Thailand, Tanzania and Uganda be released from a program whereby they must report on steps taken to address their roles in illegal ivory trade. These six countries are among a number that have been required by CITES to develop National Ivory Action Plans (NIAPs) and to report on their strategies of those plans. The Committee allowed exit to these countries on the basis of their favorable compliance made by the countries themselves, without the need for an independent verification process. This deals a serious blow to international efforts to halt the illegal ivory trade. The report showed shortcomings in all cases. For example, Kenya and Tanzania are still important exit points for illegal ivory leaving Africa, while China's recent domestic ivory trade ban has yet to show sufficient results on the ground to reassure observers that they are properly addressing their role as the largest consumer market, a point reinforced by two reports released last week by TRAFFIC.

The ivory is carved into works of art and sold at high prices.

A Missing Link for baby elephants

While young elephants whose mothers are killed by poachers may benefit from the protection of relatives, new research suggests that it doesn’t make up for the lack of nurturing by biological mothers. “Orphans can adapt socially, but that misses the whole picture,” says Shifra Goldenberg, lead author of the study. “They might be grouping up with a family, and they might be looking like they’re just doing fine, but it turns out that they may not have the same access to resources that the other elephants have.” In other words: It takes a lot more effort for an orphaned elephant to grow up when it doesn’t have the loving protection of its biological mother. “If they don’t have the same resources that other elephants have access to, they might take longer to reproduce,” Goldenberg says. “They might have a harder time surviving illness; they might be more stressed. They might not start having calves at the same age. They might not be able to keep their calves alive if they have calves.”

Baby elephant suckling from its mother.

The Turning Tide

Some Japanese ivory users have come to see a domestic trade ban as inevitable—even welcome. “We aren’t ivory artists; we’re netsuke artists,” says Akira Kuroiwa, chairman of the International Netsuke Carvers’ Association. “We don’t have to use ivory.” Very few Japanese today create large-scale ivory sculptures of the sort produced in the Meiji period, but netsuke craftsmanship has made something of a comeback among a small group of artists and collectors, including Princess Hisako of Takamado. Most artists now use a variety of materials, including wood, deer antler, metal, water buffalo horn, plastic, and stone—but for many, ivory still reigns supreme, according to Atsushi Date, chief curator of the Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Art Museum. Like Kuroiwa and others, Oikawa suspects that ivory’s time is running out, and he’s preparing for it. In his studio, he hands me a small wooden box. Nestled inside is a tiny, strikingly lifelike white rabbit with shining red eyes. It looks indistinguishable from ivory, but its elforyn—a type of plastic—and one of several materials Oikawa is exploring as a substitute for ivory. “I want to find a material that looks like ivory but isn’t ivory, to keep this technique of carving alive,” he says. Some hanko manufacturers agree with this thinking. A number have already opted out of selling ivory hankos, while others, including Soke Nihon Insou Kyokai, the company that first kicked off the ivory hanko craze, are considering alternatives.

Statues of ivory.


These highly intelligent creatures have been around for centuries. Not only do they care for one another in the herd but they also aid other animals by moving through the bush and opening up niche areas. Coupled with humanity’s population expansion, greed and cultural beliefs, this species has borne the brunt of a barrage of poaching and mistreatment. Isn’t it time we give this wonderfully majestic species the respect they deserve? The only creature that needs an elephant tusk – is an elephant.


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