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Saving Africa’s Elephants

China bans the trading of ivory to help protect elephants.

The worldwide effort to save elephants took a big step forward when China banned the buying and selling of ivory, which comes from elephant tusks. China, the world’s largest market for ivory, is the latest country to outlaw the ivory business. In July 2016, the United States toughened its laws on trading ivory.

The goal of these bans is to help save Africa’s elephants before they become extinct. Global demand for ivory leads to tens of thousands of elephants being killed each year for their tusks. This latest move by China is partly the result of an agreement it made with the U.S. in 2015. That year, President Barack Obama and China’s president pledged to work together to end the ivory trade in their countries.

Wildlife conservation groups have praised both countries’ actions. Carter Roberts, the president of the World Wildlife Fund, stated that China’s ivory ban “is a game changer for elephant conservation.”

The End of Elephants?

At one time, African elephants numbered in the millions. Today, experts estimate that fewer than 500,000 are left. Years of illegal hunting by poachers have put elephants at risk of vanishing. A survey released this past August called the Great Elephant Census shows just how dire (extremely serious) the situation is. The number of Africa’s savanna elephants dropped by one-third since 2007. “Sadly, wherever these animals exist in the wild, they are threatened,” says Andrea Heydlauff, who works for a conservation group called 500 Elephants.

To help save elephants, nations around the world signed an agreement in 1989. That made it illegal to buy or sell most ivory taken from elephants after that year. But these rules haven’t stopped poachers. Every day, about 100 elephants in Africa are killed for their tusks. Poachers shoot or poison elephants. They then saw off the tusks, leaving the dead bodies behind. Most of the tusks are smuggled (illegally transported) by ship from Africa to ports in Asia. About 70 percent of illegal ivory ends up in China. There, it has sold for as much as $1,500 per pound.

What’s so special about ivory? It’s a symbol of wealth in Asia, where it’s carved into jewelry, statues, and household items like combs and chopsticks. Some people use crushed ivory in medicines, mistakenly believing it has healing powers.

Ivory isn’t in high demand only in Asia. The U.S. is the second-largest market for ivory. The U.S. law passed in 2016 states that most ivory sold here must be at least 100 years old. That is meant to discourage poachers from continuing to kill elephants for their ivory.

Hope for the Future

Worldwide, authorities have had some success in cracking down on the illegal ivory trade. In 2015, they seized, or captured, 32 tons of illegal ivory. A number of countries have burned any illegal ivory they were storing. Last year, officials in the African nation of Kenya burned 105 tons of captured ivory, seized by the authorities over several years. According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, it came from more than 8,000 elephants. Destroying tusks may seem like a strange way to help save elephants, but it sends a powerful message to poachers, smugglers, and anyone who buys illegal ivory.

“Ivory is beautiful, but it comes from dead elephants,” explains James Deutsch, who was part of the team that conducted the Great Elephant Census. “Wouldn’t we rather have elephants in the world than ivory?”

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