Pressure grows for total ban on ivory sales

White gold: An ivory sword at the Royal Palace of the Savoia dynasty in Turin, Italy. © Getty

Should the sale of even extremely old ivory products be banned? The government’s plan to abolish internal sales of ivory products has caused a storm on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.

Every 26 minutes an elephant is poached in Africa. On that continent, the creature was once found from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope, while Asian elephants once roamed from Persia to China. But since 1800, their numbers have dropped by a factor of 50, and these great nomads are restricted to declining pockets of land.

Since the 1970s, when British zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton flew a light aircraft over Africa and discovered what he termed this “elephant holocaust”, the animals’ plight has been well known. And in most Western countries, there is now strong stigma against owning or buying ivory, the hard white material from elephants’ tusks, once a prized asset.

But still the problem persists. Ivory products are everywhere, from jewellery to chess sets. So yesterday Virginia McKenna, an actress and animal rights campaigner, called on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow to ban all ivory artefacts from the programme.

Her comments follow reports that Michael Gove, the environment secretary, is set to introduce a blanket ban on the commercial trade in ivory within the UK. This would include ivory that was bought long before any legislation was introduced.

Addressing this, McKenna said: “Some will still argue that featuring ‘antique’ ivory has no impact on living elephants. They are fooling themselves.” She added that “The era of ivory is over,” and implored the show to “get with the programme”.

The international trade in ivory was banned way back in 1989, but illegal poaching is still a disastrous problem, fuelled by demand from newly rich countries and by wars in Africa. Around 20,000 elephants were poached in Africa last year, more than the number born.

The new destination for ivory is East Asia, especially the unregulated domestic markets in China, Japan and Vietnam. More than 41 tonnes of ivory were seized in China between 2012 and 2014.

But is it really right to ban the sale of ivory products — even if the elephant they come from was killed many decades ago?

Ivory towers

Absolutely, say some. The aim must be to curb demand for ivory; while demand remains, supply will continue, legally or not. It must be made clear that ivory should never be compared with ordinary antiques. If this does not happen, many people will still fail to make the connection between a nice looking chess-set and the killing of a beautiful animal.

Let’s not be so sensitive, reply others. The problem must be to prevent elephants being killed in the future, and the best way to do this is to tackle the problem at its source. Banning the internal sale of ivory would be a curb on freedom. It would be much better to concentrate on the elephants which are still alive.

You Decide

  1. Should all sales of ivory be banned?
  2. Who is most to blame for the ivory trade?


  1. In groups, devise an anti-poaching campaign slogan and billboard.
  2. Design an infographic setting out key facts about African elephants. How have their numbers been affected by the trade in ivory?

Some People Say...

“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Mahatma Gandhi

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that the ivory trade has led to a catastrophic decline in the number of wild elephants around the world. This drop has been particularly steep since the 1800s, when European colonisation of Africa became more ingrained and trade links became closer. We know that, nowadays, the majority of ivory is sold to the Far East, although countries there are now cracking down on the trade.
What do we not know?
Whether it will be possible to reverse this decline. Demand in East Asia could one day decrease, but even if the value of ivory drops, it will still be a relatively lucrative trade in Africa as long as its economy lags behind those of other continents.

Word Watch

Cape of Good Hope
The most southerly point of Africa, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean by the city of Cape Town. It is known for its rough seas.
Asian elephants
You can tell where an elephant comes from by looking at the size of its ears. African ears are much bigger and reach up and over the neck, which does not occur in Asian elephants. The ears are also different shapes.
For thousands of years ivory has been prized and elephants have been killed for it. The Egyptian pharoah Tutankhamun was entombed in around 1323BC on a headrest of ivory.
From elephants’ tusks
Though elephants are by far the most important source, ivory from mammoths, walruses, hippopotamuses and some whales is used as well.
41 tonnes of ivory
This accounts for about 1,200 tusks of ivory, meaning that the vast majority has still not been seized.

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