DOZENS OF AFRICAN ELEPHANTS SLAUGHTERED. That headline has become all too common. Last month, poachers killed at least 86 elephants in Chad and 28 in Cameroon. Both countries are in a region of Africa that has lost more than 60% of its elephants to illegal hunters in the past decade, according to a recent study from the Wildlife Conservation Society.
In 2012 alone, experts say, 30,000 elephants were killed in countries across Africa. "We're seeing the highest levels of poaching since our record-keeping began," Crawford Allan, of the World Wildlife Fund, told TFK.
Why are so many elephants being killed? The answer lies thousands of miles away from Africa, in a handful of Asian countries. In China, business is booming in fancy shops that sell expensive statues and jewelry made of ivory.
The material comes from elephant tusks. But for many ivory purchasers, the gentle giants are not only out of sight but also out of mind. "Surveys indicate that seven out of 10 Chinese citizens don't realize that an elephant has to die in order [for them] to get ivory," says Will Travers, of the Born Free Foundation. In recent years, as China's economy has grown, so has the demand for ivory.
The Trouble with Tusks
The hunt for ivory is not a new problem. In the 1980s, as many as 1 million elephants were slaughtered in Africa. The "Ivory Wars" continued until 1989, when a treaty called CITES banned the sale of ivory from one country to another. Elephant populations began to increase. But that progress was short-lived.
Several African countries had been storing large stockpiles of tusks. To many people, allowing valuable ivory to collect dust in storage seemed like a waste. So CITES officials let a few countries sell their ivory. China bought large quantities of tusks. Today, that ivory is sold legally throughout the country. Unfortunately, this has made it possible for illegal ivory to be sold as well.
Now conservationists are putting pressure on China to crack down on the sale of illegal ivory. Experts say more help is required in Africa too. "A lot of our focus has been on providing training and equipment for the people on the front lines, the rangers," says Kelvin Alie, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Last year, Gabon, in central Africa, set fire to its ivory stockpile. By burning millions of dollars worth of tusks, the nation made a strong statement. "We don't want our children to inherit an empty forest," said the country's President, Ali Bongo. With allies like Bongo, elephants just might stand a chance.
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"The Price of Ivory" originally appeared in the April 19, 2013 issue of TIME FOR KIDS: Edition 5-6.