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Elephant in South Africa Many poachers kill elephants for their tusks. The ivory is used to make jewelry, sculptures, and tools. (Paul Souders / Corbis)

Africa’s Elephants in Danger

A rise in the sale of illegal ivory has led to the deaths of thousands of elephants

By Sean Price | September 14 , 2012
<p>Conservationists say the illegal ivory trade could cause Africa’s elephants to disappear entirely within one decade. (Marco Moretti / Anzenberger / Redux) </p>

Conservationists say the illegal ivory trade could cause Africa’s elephants to disappear entirely within one decade. (Marco Moretti / Anzenberger / Redux)

Can you imagine a world without elephants? Scientists say elephants in Africa could be headed for extinction. Africa’s elephant population totaled only about 600,000 in 2006 and has been declining dramatically since. Tens of thousands of these already endangered animals have been killed each year for their tusks, and the number continues to climb.

In 2011, the amount of illegal ivory seized worldwide set a new record. Ivory is a white material that comes from elephant tusks. It is used to make jewelry, sculptures, and tools. The amount of illegal ivory recovered last year weighed 38.8 tons in all. You would need the tusks of about 4,000 elephants to produce that much ivory.

Up to 70 percent of illegal ivory winds up in China, a country whose economy is booming. Many people there can now afford luxury ivory items, like chopsticks, bookmarks, and jewelry. As a result, the price of ivory has skyrocketed. Today, it can bring as much as $1,000 per pound.

That kind of money is tempting in the poor countries of Africa, where most elephants live. In Uganda, for instance, there is a war between the government and armed rebels called the Lord’s Resistance Army. Both the rebels and the Ugandan military are believed to be slaughtering elephants to make money to arm their forces.

Just a few years ago, elephants appeared to be safe. A global ban on most elephant ivory in 1989 led to a steep drop in the number of poaching, or illegal hunting, incidents. But China has largely ignored this ban.

“China is the epicenter of demand,” says Robert Hormats, a senior U.S. State Department official. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.”

Conservationists say that if more isn’t done to stop the illegal ivory trade, Africa’s elephants could disappear entirely within a decade.

Former NBA star Yao Ming, who played for the Houston Rockets, is one of several celebrities trying to urge people in China to stop buying ivory by explaining the threat facing elephants. He recently traveled to Africa and described what it was like to see a young elephant butchered for its ivory.

“I really was speechless,” Yao said. “After seeing these animals up close and watching them interact in loving and protective family groups, it was heart-wrenching and deeply depressing to see this [elephant] cruelly taken before its time.”

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