MW wedding elephant
Photo credit Keshav Sishta

I inherited my first pieces of white gold on the night of my wedding.

They  belonged to the long-deceased wife of a loving man, who had carefully preserved these memories for over twenty years.  He thrust them into my hands, his eyes moist and clouded with tears, while a long receiving line snaked behind him, and I smiled robotically for the hundredth time that evening.  Today, the two innocent white brooches lie in a pretty little box of wood and guilt in my home.

Two stately pianos, with their many little white keys hidden behind ornate wooden covers, also evoke memories dear to me.  Hours of practicing scales, dogs at my feet getting in the way of the pedals.  Or my proud parents beaming at me some years later as I play lively duets by Mozart with my sister.

This was the closest I had ever been to a majestic, intelligent animal, and never once did I wonder how I came to coax music out of them.  These keys were constant witnesses to the intimacies of my life, responsive to my touch, and yet so very silent about their own story.

Every single key, belonged once to an elephant.

Proboscidean Ivory

At the very head of the line, on a conveyor belt of teeth in the mouth of an elephant, are two modified incisors that grow continuously through its life.  One end of the incisors is visible, while the other is attached securely to the skull.  The ivory of a tusk is no different from the dentine of any tooth (the layer right under the enamel), including your own.  There’s just a whole lot more of it in an elephant than in you.

But elephant tusks are not entirely made of ivory.  They are actually largely hollow.  This little known fact transforms the way I think about ivory.  Within each tusk lies a nerve, almost as thick as a rolling-pin, running from a third to half of its length.  Excise the tusks and these nerves must be severed.  It is unlikely that a wild elephant could survive the infection that follows the decapitation of its tusks.  Rarely is one afforded the opportunity to try.

African Proboscideans

Historically, savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) have been the primary victims of the ivory trade.  A combination of World War I and improved protection measures allowed their populations to peak in the 1960s (according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List), and concerted conservation efforts through the next two decades resulted in a slow rise in numbers.

Despite this, their future is anything but secure today.  A recent aerial survey of the West and Central African savannah elephants could reliably confirm the presence of only 7,745 animals over a range of 75,272 sq-km, where hundreds of thousands of elephants once roamed.  Further, these elephants live in two isolated regional populations, with over 830 km between them.  In order for these populations to breed, they would have to walk the breadth of Nigeria, which is the most densely populated country in Africa, badly damaging their chances of success.

Savannah elephant population size and distribution in the Sudano-Sahelian range Fig. 3 from Bouché et al. (2011)
Savannah elephant population size and distribution in the Sudano-Sahelian range Fig. 3 from Bouché et al. (2011)

Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), only recently accepted as a separate species, are found largely in Central Africa.  Slightly smaller than their savannah counterparts, these elephants have straight tusks that are often discoloured and less appealing to consumers of white gold.

Marc Fourrier is a veteran field biologist who has lived in several countries across West and Central Africa for seven years from as early as 1995 till today. He has spent years studying gorillas in the Central African Republic and Gabon. When asked about forest elephants, he vacillates between moments of fierce joy in their existence to tense trepidation for their future.

“In a unpoached population [the elephants] have no problem with you being there. I’ve been nudged and slapped by trunks of elephants in Lope, who have come right into the gallery forest. They have no worries… why would an animal have any worries? They’re in and they’re out, any hour of [the] day and night”

They are, after all, the largest animal in the African forests.

But all that is changing today.  Sure, the ivory trade is centuries old, and elephant populations have fluctuated from it in the past.  However, as Marc puts it, “within the last decade we have seen … levels of off-take [that are] unsurpassed.”

Explore the image gallery for this article.

Proboscidean Population Estimates

Fiona Maisels and Samantha Strindberg, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, would vehemently agree.

Along with several collaborators, they conducted the largest survey of forest elephants to date, spanning several years.  The details are worth remarking upon – they walked 80 foot-surveys, covering 13,000 km, over 91,600 person-days of fieldwork (2013) – a truly staggering endeavour that spanned organisations, countries, and numerous people on the ground.  In their paper published in the journal Plos One, they summarise the inspiration for their efforts:

Bouché et al.’s (2011) study examined the West and Central African savannahs, and showed that the once large savannah elephant populations had been reduced to several small pockets of a few hundred animals in many cases, with only about 7,000 individuals remaining in total. Shortly after that publication, in early 2012, several hundred elephants were killed in a matter of a few months, in the park holding most of Cameroon’s savannah elephants [49], [50]; the poachers were well-armed and on horseback. In mid-November 2012, the same poachers were heading back to the same park – but the Cameroon army were alerted before they arrived [51]. In February 2013, the Gabonese Government announced the loss of at least half of the elephants in Minkebe National Park; as many as 11,000 individuals may have been killed between 2004 and 2012 [52].

The two most startling graphical representations of their investigation show the dung encounter rate across Central Africa contrasted with frequency of human hunting signs.

Encounter rate for elephant dung per kilometre Fig. 5 from Maisels et al. (2013)
Encounter rate for elephant dung per kilometre Fig. 5 in Maisels et al. (2013)
Encounter rate for hunter signs per kilometre Fig. 6 in Maisels et al. (2013)
Encounter rate for hunter signs per kilometre Fig. 6 in Maisels et al. (2013)

When compared to estimates of forest elephant abundance from previous years, the outlook is grim, but it should not be shocking.

Percentage breakdown of the total number of forest elephants by country Fig. 7 from Maisels et al. (2013)
Percentage breakdown of the total number of forest elephants by country Fig. 7 from Maisels et al. (2013)

From 2002 to 2011, the study found elephant populations declined by 62%. Together with other reports, the authors estimate that 80% of all of Africa’s forest elephants are now dead.  If one uses a conservative estimate of half a million elephants in 1937 in the Congo Basin, then today, in less than three generations, 400,000 elephants have been killed.

For long, the unpleasantness of the slaughter I always knew existed has kept me from really paying attention to the details.  I am deeply ashamed of this.  Unless we face the facts however, despite the horror they invoke, I do not think we can understand the urgent need that exists among people like you and me to cultivate a feeling of empathy for elephants in ourselves and in others.  In fact, this might be the last chance for us to protect the way of the elephant.

How are elephants poached in the 21st century?


On March 14th or 15th this year, 50 men rode in on horseback into Fianga city in Chad.  They had machine guns.  They used them to slaughter 86 elephants.  Thirty three of the animals were pregnant, and 15 were juveniles.  They took the tusks from every single animal and left their bodies to rot.

Last year, what likely were the same men, entered Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park and killed 650 elephants.  They used guns to kill the animals, and carried the ivory out on camelback.

These men killed half the elephants within a national park  in one week.

Helicopters and guns.

In April of 2012, a helicopter flew over a herd of 22 elephants in the Garamba National Park of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Machine guns fired and the animals were no more.  I’m not certain how to refer to these people – perpetrators? criminals? murderers? They took these animals’ lives, tusks, and even their genitals.  They didn’t take any meat with them, a clear sign that the killing was unrelated to subsistence hunting.  They did it for the money.

Most of the elephants that had been killed died from a single bullet to the head.  Park officials believe that trained snipers were employed by the Ugandan military to retrieve over a million dollars worth of ivory that day.

A few days later, reports of a military helicopter flying low over the forest arrived.  As soon as the pilot realised that he had been detected, he changed course and left the park

Photo Credit Sokwanele-Zimbabwe
Photo Credit Sokwanele-Zimbabwe

Marc has seen poached elephants while following the gorillas he studies.

He describes “the loose, tender, flaccid nerve, laying on brown African dirt in front of [a] hacked up animal, because the tusk is removed.” Then he pauses, and asks, “Perhaps you’ve never even held a tusk?”

“I’ve made music with them,” I think, dejectedly, “does that count?”

Who is poaching elephants and why?

Today the term ‘blood diamond‘ is a familiar one.  Some of us think twice before buying a diamond that we can’t trace to an ethically run mine.  Ivory is definitively the new blood diamond in Africa today.

Groups that have been linked to the ivory trade include the Lord’s Resistance Army, Al-Shabab and Darfur’s janjaweed.  They hunt elephants and pass the ivory to large criminal syndicates that are effectively fueling more conflict and war in already troubled regions.

Even subsistence hunters are being recruited to provide ivory.  Why wouldn’t they?  This largely Asian fetish for ivory has inflated the market value of the death of an elephant to well beyond an annual salary in some African nations.  That isn’t to say that a subsistence hunter can hunt one animal and live off of the proceeds for a year.  Exploitation is so entrenched in the ivory trade that these hunters sometimes get paid as little as a bag of salt for an animal.  As the larger animals with elaborate tusks are systematically hunted out of the population, poachers have moved on to hunting younger animals.

As Marc Fourrier puts it, “the point is that the market has infiltrated every cranny of the forest, every nook and cranny.  If you’re an opportunistic hunter, you may be hunting something else in parks or outside parks.  If you do take an elephant, (since) tusks are smaller and smaller each day, you probably won’t wait too long before you can get [them] converted to some currency.”

A Fire of Demand

Where does the ivory go? In a word, China.

See an infographic by the New York Times on seized ivory by country of export/origin as well as intended destination.

Maisels and colleagues elaborate:

The rapid increases in demand for, and price of, ivory in China, and the ease of sale of ivory in China [37], [38], the persistent lack of effective governance in Central Africa [53] and a proliferation of unprotected roads that provide access to hunters [54],[55] combine to facilitate illegal ivory poaching, transport and trade.

Ivory is likely being smuggled on the ‘Ivory Road’ that connects buyers in China with the hunters in Africa, via South Sudan or Uganda.

Why should we care about elephants?

First, we should care about other species than our own for a variety of reasons, some humbling and others reflecting plain economic common sense.  We learn every day of the discovery of another material, compound or drug derived from animal products with wondrous possibilities for human progress.  We design everything from equipment to fashion based on animal models.  Appealing as that idea is, I advocate that research for human benefit is not a mindset that is safe to cultivate, despite some success with ecosystems services.  It detracts from the singular importance of wildlife and the environment, except in those ways in which they are useful to humans.  We have yet so much to learn from the things we are so eager to exploit for our own advancement.

The reality is that the African elephant is unlikely to go extinct, in the true sense of the word, any time soon.  Somewhere, in some corner of Africa, a small group might hold out in a patch of scrub forest.  Perhaps even a few such groups will remain across their present range, separated by countries like Nigeria that serve as insurmountable population barriers.  Marc puts it simply, what we would lose instead are “its services to the environment”

“And that,” he says, “cannot be overstated.  This animal co-evolved with the environments that it is in, and next to humans it has the most impact creating habitat (and) dispersing seeds.”

What we will lose, in other words, is the value elephants add to their environment.  Those that survive will have lost the collective knowledge of food resources and meeting points carried by experienced bulls and matriarchs.  Large-scale seed-dispersal and the maintenance of mineral licks (or bais) that hundreds of other animals utilise for survival will be severely impeded.

“[We] will never get that back,” says Marc,”and then the animal will (already be) extinct.”

How can you save the elephant?

Just. Don’t. Buy. Ivory.

It is as simple as that. Don’t buy it. Get others not to buy it.  If you suspect that something just might be ivory, avoid it.  Even if it is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.  Even if your family has always purchased it for weddings, or on holidays.  Even if it is a good investment given the limited and fast dwindling resource it comes from.

Just. Don’t. Buy. Ivory.

Ivory carving
Ivory carving from Tianhecun, Guangzhou, Guangdong, China Photo Credit Maxim. B.

Get the word to China.

There is no ‘good’ ivory, or ‘government’ ivory.  There is just ivory, and it belonged to an animal once and that is where it should stay, simply because we have shown that we cannot control our ravenous appetite for it.  The demand among largely Chinese consumers for tusks that can be carved into religious objects directly causes thousands of elephants to die.  The recently affluent that purchase it as a reflection of their status – in short, because they can – cause thousands of elephants to die.

Marc tells me that if a hunter is in a forest with his band, “it’s wholesale killing, there’s not an animal that survives, it’s the herd.  If there was any selecting going on, that’s just gone.  Every tusk will fetch a price, and the smallest tusks are being sold, so everything goes…everything goes.”

The cost of this killing is just too high.  The biggest consumers need to know this before they make their next purchase.  And then we may pray that their conscience guides their consumerism.

Other guilty parties

There appears to be a failure on the part of sufficient members of both the academic community of zoologists, and the conservation biologists, in bridging this impasse between consumers of ivory and those protecting the elephant.  Marc agrees with me, and goes on to say:

“If we’re the ones that care the most, we have got to do something.  And if that means sacrificing the research we love to do, which is with the animal… a lot of people have already made that sacrifice…We’re all from somewhere.  Things that were sustainable yesterday are not sustainable in my life today.  (That) doesn’t mean I should do (them) because I can.”

If there are other ways to help the elephant, such as studying markets, social movements, villager livelihoods, etc, we should be using them.  Even at the expense of our own research.

I feel guilty for having put him through this experience. I’ve made him relive some gruesome events of discovering animals poached for their incisors (“there’s no selection in place, no selective poaching. It’s wide scale slaughter, it’s liquidation”), and then asked him to contrast them to his fondest memories of the forest elephants.

He tells me what it was like to sleep in an arboreal viewing platform at Langoué Bai, a “marshy, mineral-rich clearing” discovered by Mike Fay during his first megatransect in 1999 in Gabon.

Each day, hundreds of elephants gather at the bai via elephant-created highways, 30 to 40 m wide.

“I mean, I didn’t sleep that night,” he confesses, his face lighting up at the memory.  He describes “the screaming, absolute screaming, of ten, twenty, thirty elephants in the middle of the night, from different parts of the bai,” and he even mimics a few calls for me.

“And that’s the stuff that we can hear, not even including the lower (sounds)… they were loud as hell. There’s no sleeping!” he chortles.  Then suddenly, his smile fades as quickly as it arose.

“Imagine if that’s silenced,” he muses, “they got a bum deal from evolution.”

He pauses to consider the twenty years of change he has witnessed in Africa. “Too bad they’ve got tusks,” he remarks, his voice resigned with a hint of bitterness.

What rotten luck, indeed.


Rohland N., Reich D., Mallick S., Meyer M., Green R.E., Georgiadis N.J., Roca A.L., Hofreiter M. & Penny D. (2010). Genomic DNA Sequences from Mastodon and Woolly Mammoth Reveal Deep Speciation of Forest and Savanna Elephants, PLoS Biology, 8 (12) e1000564. DOI:

Maisels F., Strindberg S., Blake S., Wittemyer G., Hart J., Williamson E.A., Aba’a R., Abitsi G., Ambahe R.D. & Amsini F. & (2013). Devastating Decline of Forest Elephants in Central Africa, PLoS ONE, 8 (3) e59469. DOI:

Raubenheimer E.J. (1999). Morphological aspects and composition of African elephant (Loxodonta africana) ivory, Koedoe – African Protected Area Conservation and Science, 42 (2) DOI:

Blood Ivory: Ivory Worship by Bryan Christy for National Geographic

More about ivory:

Check out the associated picture gallery for this article here

A message from the Wildlife Conservation Society on the status of the ivory trade.

Do you want to hunt an elephant? (This is not a trick question – do not hesitate to say NO!)