Skip to main content

We are facing the prospect of elephants becoming extinct in a few generations. The consigning of these beautiful and magnificent creatures to history would be a tragic loss to wildlife and to our planet.

So the announcement that China will introduce a total ban on domestic ivory trading was a welcome Christmas present for many conservationists. By the end of 2017, it will be illegal to process or sell ivory in China. This will mean the current 34 licensed ivory processing shops and 130 retail outlets will be closed.

However, China is the destination for an estimated 70% of illegal ivory, making it by far the world’s largest market. The Chinese government had already taken steps to ban ivory imports for products manufactured before 1975. The online ivory trade had also been banned, although it has proven ineffective, with the total number of ivory items auctioned online more than doubling between 2010 and 2011.

But what are the trends in elephant numbers and the ivory market worldwide, and what other policies are in place or being discussed to protect this invaluable part of our natural heritage?

The ivory trade’s link to conservation

Researchers carrying out the ‘Great elephant census’ have found that, between 2007 and 2014, 144,000 elephants across the world have been lost. This represents a fall of around 30% over just seven years. The population decrease in recent decades has been stark. Before Europe colonised Africa, elephants were thought to number 20 million. But from a population size of over one million in the 1970s, the current figure is now estimated to be 352,271. The authors warn that, without action to conserve this species, whole elephant populations will be wiped out.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has attributed this fall in numbers largely to poaching, which they believe has surged since 2007. This has partly been driven by the growth of better-organised criminal networks able to smuggle wildlife products across borders and through poorly regulated African markets. The increased prosperity of Asian countries like China and Thailand is also fuelling demand for illegal ivory products, and making the prize for poachers that much bigger. In China, for instance, the price of raw ivory tripled between 2010 and 2014. The size of the illegal wildlife market globally, of which ivory is a major part, is estimated to be between $15 billion and $20 billion each year.

The situation in the UK

Currently there is a UK ban on raw tusks, or unworked ivory, of any age. In September 2016, the Government announced its intention to ban all ivory products made after 1947. Ministers will consult on proposals later this year. But many would like the Government to go further, including Conservatives.

At the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party called for a total ban on ivory sales in their manifesto. Former Foreign Secretary Lord Hague and former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson have both argued for the manifesto pledge to be implemented in full. Jeremy Lefroy MP called a backbench business debate on the issue late last year. They argue that modern ivory can be made to look antique and that, while there are legitimate channels through which to launder illegal ivory, this demand will continue to make poaching a worthwhile risk.

The UK also plays an important role in the international trade. Between 2009 and 2014, 40% of all customs seizures of wildlife products in the UK were ivory. Last year about 110kg of ivory was stopped at Heathrow alone. This material was discovered by the UK Border Force, which has a special unit that focuses on tackling the illegal wildlife trade.

In 2014, the UK Government announced a £13 million fund to tackle the illegal wildlife trade at source. In 2016, the Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom MP announced a further £13 million of funding. This supports a range of projects, such as strengthening the judicial system in countries like Tanzania and Kenya, educating consumers about the dangers of wildlife products, and training anti-poaching rangers.

The global context

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international ivory trade in 1989. There are 183 countries that are signatories to the overall convention, which first came into force in 1975 and which now protects a total of 35,000 species. However, even though international ivory trade has been banned, some domestic markets remain open, for instance, in Japan.

Last year, to the applause of conservationists, the US tightened its restriction on ivory sales, so that only items over a hundred years old or those containing very small quantities of ivory will be legal to sell. Domestic bans can help to effectively stigmatise ivory, reducing the desirability of the product and therefore the price. Although bans can only outlaw legitimate trade of ivory, the stigma can also help to push down demand from the black market. A full ivory ban also simplifies the enforcement procedures, removing any potential loopholes for smugglers to exploit.


Elephants are majestic animals, and there are increasingly few of them left. One of the fundamental conservative insights is that each generation has a duty to pass on a preserved inheritance to the next. The Duke of Cambridge, a patron of the wildlife conservation charity Tusk, has spoken powerfully of the danger of extinction: “Let us not tell our children the sad tale of how we watched as the last elephants, rhinos and tigers died out, but the inspiring story of how we turned the tide and preserved them for all humanity.”

If elephants are to survive for future generations to marvel at and enjoy, then concerted international action is urgently required. Conservatives, who, intuitively understand the importance of nature conservation, should be in the vanguard of this movement.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue