On September 11, 2016, after days of pushback, delegates at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) congress in Hawaii agreed to enact a ban on the domestic ivory trade throughout 217 member countries. This is a major victory for elephants, particularly African elephants, which constantly are hunted by poachers to harvest their ivory tusks. This has long been an issue, but has become drastic for the endangered species during the Twenty First Century, as the central African elephant population has declined by 64 percent in the past decade.
The decision isn’t actually legally binding, but many conservationists believe that it will encourage countries to officially ban the sale of all ivory within their borders. Currently, the international ivory trade is banned in many countries, due to regulations put into effect back in 1989. Under these regulations, ivory is only legal if it was acquired prior to the species being listed under CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna), so that it does not endanger modern elephants. However, the ease of trade for ivory antiques has made it possible for currently poached ivory to be introduced into markets under false pretenses where it has been deemed illegal.
On July 6, 2016, the United States introduced a near-total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory, which significantly enhanced regulations within the nation, banning interstate trade among other methods that make it easier to sneak the illegal material into commercial markets. The IUCN ban that has been enacted, now just over two months later, would potentially introduce such regulations into other nations, making the world safer for elephants.
While ivory laws and regulations are a relatively new concept, ivory has been a desired material for an immensely long time, first appearing as sculptural carvings in Stone Age Europe over 30,000 years ago. Since then, due to its structural durability and unlikeliness to splinter during use, ivory has been favored for many applications, commonly being found as piano keys before plastics became suitable for such a purpose.
As to why people like ivory, other than its structure for forming statues and trinkets, the reason is really the same as why people desire diamonds and precious metals: they like the way they look. Like diamonds, ivory is an expensive object of its pursuers’ dreams simply because it’s rare and looks pretty. In addition, there is evidence that ivory is collected for its feel, and this sensory reaction can actually be used to test an ivory item’s authenticity. Therefore, people like the white dentine-based material just because it looks nice and feels good.
Even though ivory is found in the teeth of a variety of other animals, specifically walruses, sperm whales, narwhals, hippopotamuses, and even warthogs, elephant tusks are the most desirable source of the raw material, since the type that grows in the tusks of the charismatic megafauna is most suitable for carving.
Stricter regulations on ivory in these hundreds of nations would curb the demand for poached ivory, since the markets for legal ivory would be virtually nonexistent. Currently, more than 30,000 African elephants are poached for their ivory every year, chipping away at their population of only 470,000 in the continent. If this trend continues as-is, the African elephant species could easily become extinct by the middle of this century.
This decision was the first of two victories in the same week for animals that have been suffering from anthropogenic pressures. Two days later, on September 13, 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Orca Protection and Safety Act, banning the breeding of orca whales in captivity and making it illegal to have the cetacean species perform for crowds.
As stated in the very first line of ISO 14001:2015 – Environmental management systems – Requirements with guidance for use: “Achieving a balance between the environment, society and the economy is considered essential to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” In these two cases, the future generations refers to not humans but the animal species, which have long suffered for societal and economic benefits. However, today’s standards, guidelines, and regulations strive to make the world inhabitable for all living things.