The ivory trade – every year it’s estimated to be worth £17bn and responsible for the slaughter of 20,000 elephants. It’s an epidemic never far from my mind or any other animal rights campaigner for that matter.
In April 2018 the UK government announced the trade of items made from ivory to be banned, in what the environment secretary Michael Gove claimed to be “one of the toughest in the world.”
The ban, which is still to be signed into law, comes after 85% of the public supported the proposed act. I’m concerned why the other 15% said otherwise. Many charities praised the move, WWF chief executive Tanya Steel even claimed the UK stance made it a ”global leader in tackling this bloody trade”.
Media attention, charity demands and public outcry brought forwards the act to further protect elephants from poaching, but as of yet, there is no UK wide ban that protects the other victims of this cruel industry, just talk between the government to extend the proposed ban to all other ivory-bearing creatures.
So, what exactly is ivory and who are the other animals affected by this despicable business?
– TOOTH AND BONE –
To put it simply, ivory is the teeth or tusks of animals – most commonly canine teeth, but in elephants, they are actually elongated incisors. Ivory is hard, dense, and made of dentine – a bony tissue, and wrapped in enamel. Depending on the animal, tusks serve many purposes such as digging, gathering food, defence and combat, giving the animals that have them an evolutionary advantage.
Elephant ivory is the most common form but ivory from other species has also been used for centuries to make a huge range of items, everything from false teeth, piano keys, and religious objects, to buttons and art.
– NARWHAL –
Dubbed for centuries as the “unicorn of the sea”, the unmistakable, spiralled tusk of the mysterious narwhal caused quite the stir among the Europeans, particularly monarchs, while the Arctic was still mostly unexplored.
Queen Elizabeth I is said to have spent £10,000 on one – equivalent roughly to £1.5m in today’s money. Now the average price for a tusk can vary drastically from between £3,000 to £12,000, while rare double tusks can fetch as much as £25,000.
The tusk, no longer considered that of a unicorn, is actually a protruding canine tooth – most commonly found on males. The tusk which has a sensory capability and up to 10 million nerve endings inside, can grow up to 10 feet long!
The IUCN does not consider the narwhal, a relative of the white beluga whale, to be at immediate risk; therefore they are currently listed as “least concern”. However, the impact of hunting and changes in their natural environment means thing could go south. And quickly.
Native Inuit permitted under a Canadian and Greenland permit, have hunted these whales as a source of food and income for centuries. A Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) study found that shops in Japan were selling narwhal tusks as a tonic to treat fever, measles and other diseases, with shop prices varying from £421 – £724 for 100g.
Ultimately the WWF and TRAFFIC concluded from a 2015 survey, that the effects of climate change mean the hunting of narwhal needs to be monitored and regulated more precisely, but they didn’t consider the current international trade to be a threat to the survival of the species today.
– WARTHOG –
Unlike elephants, the tusks of a warthog are less sought after. The common warthog is identifiable by two pairs of tusks or canine teeth, that protrude from the mouth and curve upwards. The lower pair, far smaller than the upper, become razor sharp because they rub against the upper pair every time the mouth opens or closes.
The tusks that grow constantly throughout the animals lives are used for digging, for combat with other hogs and in defence against predators.
The upper set of tusks are the most common form of warthog ivory, typically being carved and sold to tourists in and around east and southern Africa.
– WALRUS –
With tusks that can grow as long as 39 inches in males, walrus ivory comes from two modified canine teeth located in the upper jaw, just like the warthog.
The killing of these animals is illegal under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act – except for Alaskan natives, who hunt to eat them and use their tusks, bones and hides for traditional purposes, within restrictions by countries with territories in the Arctic. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) believes an average of 5,406 animals were hunted from 2006 – 07 to 2010 – 11, which “equates to less than 3% and 4% of the estimated global populations of each subspecies”.
The Pacific walrus is currently listed as “data deficient” on the IUCN red list, whereas the Atlantic walrus is listed as “near threatened”.
Hippopotamus teeth ivory is the second most common type of ivory. It is cheaper than that of elephants, easier to smuggle and extremely durable. The huge canines grow throughout their lives and can reach 60cm in length, their teeth also don’t yellow with age, unlike other ivories, meaning they are often valued higher on the market.
Unregulated hunting of not only their teeth but bones and skin too, coupled with habitat loss and increased human-hippo conflict have lead to a decline in hippo numbers in Africa. At current rates, of just 115,000 – 130,000 across 29 African states, these animals could disappear within a century. While researching I found out this number represents little more than a quarter of Africa’s 400,000 elephant population, quite shocking when you think about it!
The hippotamus is currently listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN red list.
– SPERM WHALE –
The sperm whale is the largest of toothed whales and the largest of all toothed predators. Mature males average 52ft in length but some can reach as much as 67ft, with the head accounting for one–third of the animal’s whole length. Their sheer size means they have few natural predators, although calves and weakened individual can succumb to orca attacks.
Over the years orcas have also been a source of ivory – although nowadays it is rare for both species to be hunted in this way. Instead, sperm whales are typically hunted as food and they are now considered as “vulnerable” on the red list. In the days of the ”whaling era” (which occurred between the 17th and 20th centuries) it is believed as many as 1,000,000 of these whales were killed, poached for their blubber, oil and meat.
Orca, on the other hand, have not been massively hunted, however, they are still killed for the meat, skin, and internal organs. Capture for entertainment and habitat pollution is considered to be two big threats that endanger this species. As of 2017, they are listed as “data deficient” by the IUCN, something I was surprised to read.