The ivory trade is a story as old as human civilization, filled with tales of adventure, greed, and exploitation. For millennia, ivory has been prized for its beauty, rarity, and versatility, making it one of the most valuable commodities in the world. From the ivory carvings of ancient China to the ivory-handled weapons of medieval Europe, the trade in elephant tusks has left an indelible mark on human history. But with all its glamor and allure, the ivory trade has a darker side. The quest for ivory has led to the widespread slaughter of elephants, pushing some species to the brink of extinction and devastating ecosystems across the globe. Today, the ivory trade continues to thrive, fueled by demand from illicit markets and perpetuated by corruption and organized crime. In this article, we delve into the rich and complex history of the ivory trade, exploring its origins, impact, and legacy.
The Ancient Beginnings of the Ivory Trade
There’s plenty of evidence that mankind’s tragic obsession with harvesting ivory dates back to ancient times. To begin with, the later dynastic Egyptians were hunting elephants for ivory from as early as the 15th and 16th centuries BC.
Egyptian pharaohs would hunt Asian elephants along the Euphrates River while the Egyptian empire as a whole sourced ivory from the lands that bordered the Upper Nile. Records have been found that indicate that in 700 BC alone Egypt imported 700 tusks from Somalia.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans were also fans of using ivory in their artwork. Roman ivory mainly came from Africa and was sourced from North African Elephants. These were the same elephants that were used in the Roman colosseum fights and which the Romans also sometimes used in military campaigns.
The Roman trade in ivory was such that in 77 AD Pliny the Elder (a renowned Roman historian) complained that ample supplies of ivory were a thing of the past unless one traded with India. The Roman demand for ivory had completely depleted the supply and decimated elephant populations in Africa. It took these populations, and the resultant trade in African ivory, several centuries to bounce back.
Over in India, there is evidence that ivory was being used by the Harappan civilization (located in the Indus River Valley) as early as the third millennium BC. There is also evidence that from around the sixth century BC, Indians were importing large amounts of ivory from Ethiopia. At the same time, ivory from Indian elephants was also being exported to the west. In short, it seems just about everyone had their fingers in the ivory trade.
Ancient elephant hunting depicted on this relief, on the wall of the Palace of the Leprous King, Nakhon Thom [Angkor Wat], Cambodia. (Pierre André Leclercq/ CC BY 4.0 )
Ivory During Medieval and Renaissance Eras
As mentioned above, the African trade saw a serious decline towards the end of the Ancient period (around 500 AD) due to serious declines in elephant populations. The early years of the Christian era saw a continuation of this trend.
There seems to have been relatively little interest in the use of ivory during this time. This was probably due to the decline of the Roman Empire and the fact there just weren’t a lot of elephants left.
Sadly, by around 800 AD the ivory trade was getting back on its feet. The Islamic expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries AD opened up the trans-Saharan trade routes . This allowed traders to transport ivory from West Africa to the North African coast. From there the ivory could be easily shipped into the Mediterranean and then Europe where it was used for religious purposes.
The spread of Arab trade also led to an increase in ivory being shipped to Central and East Asia the demand there for African ivory was much less. The simple fact was they could source their own from southeast Asian elephants.
The Resurgence of Ivory From the 1500s-1700s
This was the status quo until the 15th century, when Portuguese explorers turned the trade on its head. Portuguese navigators began exploring the West African coastlines during the 1400s. What did they find along the West African coastlines? Ivory and lots of it.
Terrestrial vegetation and Portuguese trading posts in the late 15th and early 16th century. (De Flamingh et al./ Current Biology 2020)
The Portuguese soon joined the ivory trade, cutting out the Arab merchants Europe had once gotten its ivory supply from. Soon, other European powers followed suit. The English wasted little time in getting involved, buying vast amounts of ivory from Guinea. One historian, Clive Spinage, has estimated that from the 1500s-1700s roughly 100-120 tons of ivory may have been transported from Africa every year. During this period the Europeans shipped the ivory but the ivory itself was mainly acquired from African hunters. Sadly, history soon began to repeat itself as elephant populations near the African coasts declined.
This led to the hunters heading further and further inland in search of large herds and soon the major problem became transporting the ivory. In West Africa, the ivory trade focused on rivers that emptied into the Atlantic, making transport no big deal. But in Central and East Africa there weren’t so many rivers. Even worse, the region was full of sleeping sickness and other deadly tropical diseases that made using animals to transport the ivory next to impossible. It soon became clear the only option was human transportation. A new, somehow even darker period of the ivory trade had begun.
The Slave Trade. Painting by Auguste Francios Biard. ( Public Domain )
Ivory and Slavery
It didn’t take long for the growing ivory trade and the growing slavery trade to start going hand in hand. In East and Central Africa, African and Arab slave traders began traveling inland, hunting down large numbers of captives and elephants at the same time.
They would enslave the local population and then force them to transport the ivory along the coast. Once the poor souls reached the coast, the traders would sell them into captivity and sell the ivory for hefty profits. Not only had they solved their transportation woes, but they had also found a new source of income.
Ivory trade in Africa. ( Public Domain )
The Colonial Era
The colonial era saw several major shifts in the ivory trade, but it was all powered by one thing, greed. As the European colonial powers explored Africa and Southern Asia their empires hungered for the resources needed to fuel their nations.
Sadly, ivory had a range of practical uses . It could be used to make everything from knife handles and combs to toys and piano keys. It was also popular in decorative items like furniture and works of art.
Ivory comb from Medieval Europe, decorated with peacocks. Ivory was used for artwork, toys and furniture. ( CC)
Not content to let others do the killing, the Europeans wanted a piece of the slaughter. During the 1800s and 1900s European ivory hunters began hunting elephants in ever-increasing numbers. Part of it was to help keep up with demand, but another part was because they thought it was fun. As time went on the growing ivory trade had major implications for elephant populations across Africa.
The Portuguese ran the West African ivory trade from the 16th century until its eventual collapse in the mid-19th century. Early on, the largest elephant populations could be found in Ghana, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast but over time numbers began to fall. This led to the trade moving southward and Gambia, Luanda, and the Congo became major hubs for the ivory trade.
By around 1900, the Belgian Congo was exporting around 352 tons of ivory per year, around half of Africa’s total exports. It’s estimated that from 1889 to 1950 at least 550 elephants were killed in the Belgian Congo to supply this demand.
The East African ivory trade was dominated by the Portuguese until the Arabs took over during the 19th century. While West Africa managed a relatively steady output of ivory, the East African trade was more volatile. Its trade was originally centered around the ports of Mombasa, Kilwa, Sofala, and Delagoa Bay but over time most of them dried up.
By the middle of the 18th century, Mozambique had taken the lead as the region’s biggest ivory trader, supplying 150-180 tons of ivory per year. By the early 19th century, the East African trade had moved further along the coast. It peaked from 1830-1856 with Zanzibar exporting 297 tons of ivory in 1849.
Ivory trade, East Africa, 1880s/1890s. ( Public Domain )
Despite these impressive (and disturbing) numbers, the fact was that in both regions supply was beginning to run out. Average tusk weights were trending downwards. This meant stocks of fully mature and full-grown bull elephants were depleted and hunters were having to kill more and more young elephants to keep numbers up.
The period of 1856-1857 also saw a sharp jump in the price of ivory. This led to Arab traders rushing into the region looking to make quick money. With them came a major influx of guns, which further stimulated the ivory hunt. In 1889 Zanzibar exported 222 tons, with the number averaging out to around 180 tons by the end of the century. From 1893-1894, 41000 tusks were exported from East Africa at a weight of 351 tons.
Some quick math shows that at least 10000 elephants were killed to reach these numbers. With the trend of younger and younger elephants being hunted, it was clear that the trade was not sustainable.
The same was true in northern Africa and throughout the 19th century, there is evidence that elephant stocks were becoming heavily depleted. From 1853 to 1879 the average amount of ivory being exported from north African countries was around 148 tons. By 1888 this was down to just 42 tons, and by 1905, only 20 tons.
People finally began to wake up. In 1872 King Kabarega of Bunyoro in Uganda put in place a ban on the free trade of ivory. The penalty? Death. This lasted for only five years.
In 1900 two European travelers, Rogan and Sharpe wrote, “In the greater part of Africa the elephant is now a thing of the past, and the rate at which they have disappeared is appalling. Ten years ago, elephants swarmed in places like British Central Africa, where now you will not find one”. This was a slight exaggeration but not completely off. In large parts of Africa, especially the Savanna, the elephant population has been completely decimated.
The level of greed, and short-sightedness, was astounding. Across Africa, as numbers plunged, the trade continued. In South Africa, the writing had been on the wall for a long time. In 1652 elephants were a common sight around Table Mountain. They had disappeared completely from the region by 1775. Between 1850 and 1875 South Africa was exporting an average of 50 tons of ivory a year. By 1889 it was down to just 4 tons. The elephant had essentially been hunted out of the area altogether.
Introduction of Regulation
Eventually, the powers that be did begin to sit up and take notice. Declining numbers could only be ignored for so long. The first attempt at regulation was made by Africa in 1822 but it largely failed.
In 1896 German East Africa tried to bring a stop to the hunting of immature elephants by making it illegal to carry tusks that weighed less than 6.4kg. A year later Uganda and the East African Protectorate followed suit, banning tusks under 4.6kg and forbidding the killing of cow elephants (although this was down to under 4kg in 1905, before settling at 5kg in 1933).
In 1900 several African colonies passed laws that limited large-scale elephant hunting. Combined with the collapse of the slave trade, a fall in ivory prices, and the fact that there was little demand for ivory during WW1 and WW2, elephant populations slowly began to recover.
As they became independent during the 1960s, most African countries brought in even tougher game legislation laws and big game hunting was either outlawed completely or gated behind expensive licenses. Big-game hunting was only possible if you were a western dentist with a healthy checkbook and a need to overcompensate. Or a poacher.
Of course, we still haven’t learned our lessons. As elephant populations have slowly rebounded, restrictions on the ivory trade have slowly been rolled back. Between 1990 and 2000 the elephants in Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia were once again opened up to the ivory trade.
Local farmers argue that elephant population control is required if their crops are to survive. But others argue that any legitimate trade in ivory only encourages poaching. As long as there is an ivory trade of any kind, elephant populations are in danger.
If the history of the ivory trade has told us anything, it’s that we never learn. Throughout history, the ivory trade has waxed and waned alongside elephant numbers. Every time populations bounce back, hunters and ivory traders are always close at hand, ready to drive them back down. The fear is that one day, elephant populations simply won’t bounce back and humans will have wiped out yet another species.
Top image: Amazing African elephant with dust and sand and large ivory tusks. Source: byrdyak/Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell