Today, August 12, is World Elephant Day. Before you pop the bubbly and toast in celebration of this majestic and intelligent creature, you should know that today about 55 elephants will be butchered for their tusks – that’s one every 15 minutes! Moreover, the numbers will continue tomorrow and the day after that.
Weighing in at an average of six tonnes (5,442 kilograms), the African elephant is the largest land-living mammal in the world and tragically it’s worth its weight in gold. It’s estimated that a staggering 20,000 elephants are murdered each year by poachers seeking their ivory, meat and body parts. Hong Kong and Japan remain major destinations for illegal ivory, as does China and the United States. If the demise of elephants continues, this species could become extinct within a mere 10 years.
In 1989, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed African elephants under Appendix I, which restricts international trade of their parts. However, the demand for ivory has continued to stimulate illegal trafficking and poaching of elephants.
Ivory tusks are nothing more than elongated incisor teeth made up of dentine and wrapped in enamel. Each tusk can grow to weigh more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms). Elephants use their tusks for a variety of things from digging out grasses and roots, excavating for water, and removing bark from trees, clearing out brush, and sometimes as weapons for fighting off predators.
Behind every piece of ivory – whether it be a six-foot long full tusk or a thumb-sized carved trinket – is a dead elephant. There is no way to “gently remove” an elephant’s tusk. The bottom third of each elephant tusk is embedded deep within the skull of the animal. This part is a pulpy cavity that contains nerves, tissue, blood vessels, as well as ivory. To remove that section, the tooth must be carved out. To put it bluntly – hacked out of the elephant’s skull. This is why, when you see gruesome photos of poached elephants, much of their face and cranial area is missing.
Elephants are not only being killed for their tusks but also mutilated for their body parts. Poachers cut off elephants’ ears for use as phony medicine, hack off their feet for furniture, take an axe to their tail as a talisman for success and protection from supernatural attack, and slice off their trunk and genitalia for human consumption. Over the last few years, poachers have begun taking elephant skin and turning it into jewelry. Dried skin is polished into small, translucent beads, which increase in value based on the amount of visible red blood vessels. Dried elephant skin is also traditionally ground into a powder and then mixed with oil or elephant fat to create a paste professed to treat skin conditions, despite elephant skin having absolutely no health value.
The escalating skin trade poses a grave threat to wild elephants, perhaps even more so than ivory poaching, because every elephant, including young, defenceless calves, is “ripe for the picking.”
Adding to this, elephants face several other threats including the accelerating loss and fragmentation of their natural habitats and rising conflict with humans. Due to a surging human population, mankind has infiltrated elephant rangelands. When farms are established where elephants are used to roaming, they become a target for crop-raiding by elephants who are none the wiser as to who owns which lush wetland. The result is deadly conflicts between elephant and man, with elephants often shot, and, on some isolated occasions poisoned.