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In ancient days, when Persian Kings would travel across their vast kingdom, one of the most important social activities was the giving of gifts. Royal gifts created an essential link between the receiver and the giver. Loyalty was committed to the King and he in turn received the submission of his subjects. When it came to governors and leaders of vanquished territories, they were expected to lavish the king with exquisite gifts including jade, silk and ivory. The main purpose for this was to pay respect, pledge allegiance and show submission to the monarch. Refusal to present such gifts was taken as proof of insubordination. Ivory has always been highly regarded and prized.

As we look at history and retrace the ascent and descent of empires that ruled the world across Europe and Asia before the 6th BC, it is exactly because of the wealth of these empires that the populations of elephants in North Africa, China and Mesopotamia were decimated.

By the middle ages ivory had became extremely rare and was exported through the silk routes making it even more expensive and exotic; a reserve for the aristocracy Since then the allure and prestige of ivory has not waned with time.

Ivory and religion

ivory trinkets and amulets
In an investigative piece done by Bryan Christy, termed Blood Ivory for The National Geographic, Bryan traces the use of Ivory in Philippines, Thailand and China in carving Santo Niños, Buddha and other religious artifacts and how corruption fuels this insatiable appetite.

For the Buddhists and the Catholics, ivory represents the most precious element that one can use in honoring one’s god, even more precious than gold.

With increased economic success in China more people are able to acquire products that they consider glamorous and exotic. For most, ivory artifacts also bring blessings and success to the owner.

This in many ways explains why despite the ban on poaching and restricted selling of ivory in China there is still an unbridled market that is bustling and maturing.

The biggest problem being faced more than anything else is ignorance. When people don’t have any cognitive association between the beautiful ivory artifacts they own and the elephants that are being slaughtered in Africa.

Awareness is key and there are various routes that can be taken to create awareness.

African elephant on the road - Jane Goodall
Religious leaders have to show their support and voice their concerns about the fact that elephants need to be preserved and protected . This needs to be voiced consistently and across all forums, without being defensive or offering rhetoric. The Catholic stance on the matter following the National Geographic piece Blood Ivory can be read here and the actions that were taken including excommunicating some of the priests involved.

For Buddhist leaders, a different approach that requires diplomacy is essential, given that China, where you find most Buddhists, is not a democracy and neither is it open to influence from religious leaders. But if you follow the media you will find instances of Thai Buddhist leaders calling for the end of Ivory trade. Also the fact that there was wide spread controversy when it was mentioned that a top religious leader remains would be placed in an ivory urn, tells of a shift in the public perceptions of the use of ivory in Thailand.

Changing public perceptions

Retired NBA star Yao Ming over a very short period of time with the help of a coalition of Chinese business leaders, students, celebrities and a government campaign against extravagance was able to change the perception of China on the consumption of shark fin soup, an affair decked with opulence.
Yao Ming in Kenya
Yao Ming believes that working with WildAid, African Wildlife Foundation, and Save the Elephants and raising the awareness across the world and markedly in the Chinese society will help change the perception on ivory and the Rhino horn. The work the coalition has done is extensive and the publicity impressive as seen here. But the truth is that it will require patience, consistency, continual education and psychological desensitization of the masses to change the perception that is deep seated.  

Governments will need to instead attack the root of the issue as opposed to passing draconian legislation that becomes difficult to implement and enforce to combat against illegal trade of ivory.

The Demands of wealth

Extreme poverty could be one of the reasons why despite the ban on poaching, the practice still continues unabated in many African countries. But having said that, poaching is not driven by poverty, but by the demands of wealthier communities.
As we speak the demand of tusks in China has risen to a point that they cost more than 10 times the annual income in many African countries. 

This offers a predicament for many where immediate need to satisfy ravishing hunger contend with the future benefits that come from conservation of wildlife.

I believe if we tackle the poverty question across Africa, through development projects geared at the bulk of our citizenry, then they may have the benefit to contemplate actively preserving our wildlife communally.

Allowing the tourism sector to flourish can alleviate poverty but there is need to allow the indigenous communities to be actively involved in the creation of such poverty alleviation strategies.

Well informed community based Investment in the tourism areas can bring about employment creation, higher wages, access to newly provided infrastructure and community services.

It is important to stimulate production and availability of quality handiwork and artisan products and give small agriculture connectivity to markets.

But even with this there is still need to measure and monitor the inflow of tourism expenditure to the communities living with wildlife.
Community tourism if effectively used can be used to create a sense of responsibility in local communities so that they manage and support the wildlife proactively, knowing that there is a benefit that accrues to them.

Standing as one on conflict

The immense windfall profits that come from elephant and rhino poaching have continued to fuel conflict in the Congo, Northern Uganda, Central African Republic and Somalia. Armed groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army, Al-Shabaab and Darfur’s Janjaweed use the proceeds from selling tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem.  It does not help that the borders of the nations that these armed groups operate around are porous.
Slaughter of elephants
For instance, Al-Shabaab actively buys and sells ivory from Kenya to fund its militant operations. It is mentioned in an investigative report “ivory trade could be supplying up to 40% of the funds needed to keep them in business.’’

Al-Shabaab’s sway over the fighting population is mainly because of their financial acumen and access to the black markets. For instance Al-Shabaab’s soldiers are paid $300 monthly and their needs met, while an opposing government soldier earns far less and finds it hard to survive. Thus they find themselves gravitating towards Al-Shabaab’s tentacles.  

Established armies in these regions also take part in this plunder. It is well noted that the Congolese, Ugandan and South Sudanese are implicated in poaching and dealing in Ivory. Mainly due to the huge windfalls associated, and the lack of transparency.

The answer to this problem is not singular, finding a way to break down the well-established global poaching network that is very lucrative will need to start from the people who have an insatiable appetite for ivory products, the people fueling the demand.

A call for good governance also has its part in this equation. A progressive East and Central Africa that is better governed and its population empowered economically, could also create foresight in managing the dwindling numbers of elephants in East and Central Africa.  


Unfortunately one of the main reasons why these armed groups find it easy to filter ivory from the DRC, Tanzania and Kenya is precisely because there is no one with the moral authority to stop them. From the border patrol teams, to wildlife services and senior government officials, there is either a sense of ineptitude or self-preservation and thus a focus on amassing wealth by any means possible, which tends to create a very shortsighted view of society as a whole. What this negates is any effort to fight the streamlined poaching networks that exist.
Government officials are paid off to look the other way.  How else can you explain ivory going through our ports and airports?
I believe there are two possible solutions.

The first has been witnessed in countries like Singapore, Botswana and Rwanda. And it starts when a visionary leader takes up a position in government and has the emotional audacity to fight all the prevalent corrupt systems. He then appoints people of integrity and commitment in key positions. With time the culture of corruption is trampled and slowly different sectors of the economy begin to flourish away from this vice.

The other is more revolutionary in nature and is driven by the population. Citizens who simply had enough of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his corrupt ways precipitated the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia.

With better access to information and a growing middle class across Africa change is in the offing and it is the reality that government officials are now constantly required to account for their actions.

China and America the two main markets

Policies and rules geared towards banning illegal poaching and trafficking of ivory in Africa have for the last few years been largely toothless and ineffective.  Especially when America and China the two largest ivory markets had not taken any concerted effort to put in place proper measures. But that is changing; America took the steps last February in enacting a National Strategy to combat against wildlife trafficking and the trade in elephant ivory. The steps and controls proposed are bold and hopefully their implementation will curtail the market in America to a trickle.  But then again will it? Read here a counter thought. But event with such divergent views New Jersey and New York States have signed it into state law.

China, on the other hand which is the largest market of ivory has been petitioned by Yao Ming, the former Basketball star, to ban ivory sales in China, but his is not the only attempt, a WildAid survey noted that 94 percent of the Chinese public support a total government ban on the ivory trade. 

impounded ivory in China


Greed, indifference and ignorance are the three factors that have to be fought in China to drive down the demand for ivory.  The government has given its support to this cause, which is evidenced by the wide coverage that Yao Ming’s campaign has received in the censured media.   

The hope is that eventually the elephant will be heavily protected like the giant panda.

Ban the sale

There are two divergent views; one says sell ivory on legal channels and the other categorically calls for the total ban of ivory sales. Both seem to stem from statistics that come from the global ivory ban by CITES in 1990 and the authorized ‘experimental sales’ by Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to Japan in 1999. 

I believe if a system is not monitored effectively then there is no way of capturing the illegal elements in it and thus illegal ivory will continue to pass as legal ivory and there is strong evidence to support this fact given the increased killing of elephants.

As the system stands most African countries lack a coordinated strategy that will effectively police the legal culling of elephants and stem illegal poaching. For that simple reason, an all out ban is the most effective means of stopping the poaching of elephants. Because it will effectively shed light on the illegal poaching networks that are in place.

Eminent Death as a deterrent

Desperate times call for desperate measures and while the shoot to kill policy is a last result measure, there have been marked signs that it is effective in Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Tanzania.  This policy effectively reduced the deaths of Rhinos drastically. But this stance tends to be met with a lot of disapproval from the surrounding communities, since in certain instances it can be abused by game warders and human rights tend to be trampled upon in the name of animal safety.
Part of the solution involves integrating the local communities in curbing the poaching menace.
 It is interesting while all this is the scenario in Africa; one faces the death penalty in China if found poaching endangered species.

In conclusion, I believe it will take a collaborative effort and the will of various nations around the world to stem the poaching epidemic of elephants and rhinos. And hopefully our children will not have to see extinct elephants in 3D computer renditions.


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