The Elephant in the Room: Does legal mammoth ivory fuel the poaching trade?

Rather than decreasing the amount of animals being poached, the number has risen over the past few years. Approximately 20,000 – 35,000 elephants were killed in 2013. Some reports place the number at around 35,000 each year for the past three years. Considering the 4-600,000 amount in the wild, African elephants could be facing extinction within the next thirty years.


A terrifying prospect for everyone's favourite pachyderm.


On the surface, flooding the market with legal mammoth ivory instead of African elephant ivory sounds like a logical plan - the large number of mammoth tusks being found pushes the more dangerously-sourced elephant ivory out of the market, poaching instances go down, and the elephant population recovers from the estimated 4-600,000 individuals left in the wild.


However, this allowance of ivory seems to have had the opposite effect.


As you can imagine, the identification of ivory is a difficult task. How does one distinguish between mammoth ivory and elephant ivory? Schreger lines – the cross-hatching in elephant/mammoth ivory – are only good for distinguishing between the species, and may not even be present in worked pieces.


Because some post-ban elephant ivory is legal, the situation only gets stickier. A growing craft in forging ivory certificates undermines the whole concept of allowing legal ivory to be traded, and adds yet another facet to the incentive of supply/demand.


This perfect storm that fuels the illegal ivory trade is having devastating consequences for African elephants.


Buried in the Siberian permafrost, frozen for thousands of years, may lie the remains of around fifteen million mammoths – and potentially millions of tonnes of ivory.


But can this white gold rush save the African elephant from imminent extinction?


Mammoth ivory, unlike most elephant ivory, is legal to trade. With the global thaw, more and more remains are being uncovered each year, to the point where collecting these ancient tusks has become a lucrative business, and for good reason. Woolly mammoth tusks could reach seven feet long, and can fetch around $1600 per kilogram (2014 figures).

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