There are thought to be about 500,000 elephants in Africa today. That's just an estimate, but whatever the number is, it's definitely declining. It's dropping in part because the elephants are losing their habitat, but also due increasingly to ivory poachers. A 2011 study that monitored 60 of the locations most-frequented by elephants found that an astounding 7.4 percent of those elephants were killed illegally just that year. On those sites, which account for about 40 percent of the entire African population, they estimated that 17,000 elephants were killed. It would certainly stand to reason that the total number of elephants killed by poachers in Africa was much higher that year.
The global illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since just 2007, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which also estimates that the trades is now three times as large as it was in 1998. They say that seizures of illegal ivory shipments over 800 kg in size (that's about one ton) have doubled since 2009. Doubled.
Where is all this ivory going? Most of it is actually funneled from Africa to a handful of countries in Asia. For all the continent-sized damage caused by the ivory trade, it's mostly drive by a surprisingly small number of countries. They're sometimes called the "Gang of Eight": that refers to exporters Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda; middleman states Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines; and consumers China and Thailand.
The global market is bigger than those eight countries, of course, but a comprehensive new report on the illegal ivory market and its devastation of the elephant population put its pretty clearly: "Today, most ivory is obtained illegally from Africa and manufactured and sold in Asia." The report was released by a United Nations Environment Program office called UNEP/GRID-Arendal, which is short for the Global Resource Information Database office in Arendal, Sweden.
I've pulled two maps from the report, which are included here. The first, at the top of this page, shows the contours of the illegal ivory trade, as measured in large-scale seizures. Remember that this only counts seizures of over 800 kg (about one ton), and it only counts the people who got caught. But you can see the basics: the elephants are killed and stripped of their ivory in East and Southern Africa. Then they're shipped to Southeast Asia to be processed from raw tusks into commercial products, which are often shipped to Thailand or China, where a rising middle class is buying up more and more.
This doesn't account for the entire ivory trade, of course. The UNEP/GRID-Arendal report also includes a map focused just on Africa, where so much of the ivory is produced. That map, posted below, details the trafficking routes within Africa: the major land routes that criss-cross the continent, the big African markets in Nigeria and Cameroon, and the shipping routes to other corners of the world. It makes clear that, although the more narrowly defined network at the top of this page is significant, the illegal ivory trade is killing elephants across Africa and selling their ivory around the world.
Here's the Africa map:
There is illegal ivory just about everywhere, but the markets outside of Africa and East Asia tend to be much smaller for two reasons: limited demand and well-enforced laws. Sometimes demand is limited because the product is too expensive. Often it's because ivory is considered taboo, a perception that helped drive down Western demand for ivory in the 1980s, after a series of successful awareness campaigns. Around the same time, the world began implementing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a 1973 treaty that limited the ivory trade.
Here's the section from the UNEP/GRID-Arendal report on North America, which focuses largely on the U.S.
Along with Europe, the United States of America was one of the largest ivory markets in the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with factories processing hundreds of tonnes of ivory a year to make piano keys, billiard balls and other utilitarian items (Martin and Stiles 2008). In the 1950s, plastic began to replace ivory and cheaper Japanese ivory became more competitive than American ivory manufacturing. By the 1970s, little raw ivory was being imported and most worked pieces came from Hong Kong, although there were still about 1,400 ivory craftsmen in the United States in the mid 1980s (Cobb 1989).
The ivory market collapsed in 1989 when the United States banned the import and export of ivory less than one hundred years old in conformance with the CITES trade ban. It is still legal, however, to work and sell African elephant ivory that entered the United States prior to 1989 and currently there are about 200 carvers who use elephant ivory (Martin and Stiles 2008). Because of its large population and its economic power, even with greatly reduced scale the American ivory market is ranked second in the world, behind China.
Ivory market surveys between 2004 and 2007 showed that there was a moderately high degree of illegal ivory imports into in the United States, partly fuelled by Internet sales (William- son 2004; Martin and Stiles 2008). An ETIS analysis revealed that there had been a large number of ivory seizures, but that they were small in size, indicating that organized crime was not involved (Milliken et al. 2012).
This explains why you still see ivory in the U.S. and why there's still a significant domestic ivory trade: it's mostly old ivory that arrived here before 1989. That's great because it means very few elephants are killed to meet American demand. But the problem is that this solution might not work in China, where the market hasn't yet accumulated a big domestic supply of old ivory. It's hard not to be reminded of the Kyoto Protocol limiting greenhouse gas emissions: how are we supposed to convince China that it can't do the same awful stuff we did 100 years ago?