In this post we're going to look at how poaching works, following the trade from the attack on the elephant herd to the sale of a carved ivory product. To see a visual explanation of this process, check out this video.
Poaching is a much more sophisticated trade than we think, which is why it's so hard to capture poachers and to eliminate poaching rings. But before I get ahead of myself, let's start at the beginning:
The Herd Attack
The first step is, of course, to obtain ivory tusks. To do this, bands of poachers in Africa track herds and plan an attack when the herd is the most vulnerable. Poachers target the oldest adults, which have the longest tusks, which usually means they're taking out the matriarch. I won't get into it here, but when the matriarch is killed, it threatens the survival of the entire herd.
Getting the Tusks
After the smoke has cleared and the elephants are killed, the poachers move in to remove the tusks. Contrary to a popular lie told to Asian consumers, tusks don't just fall out of the elephant's face; they have to be cut out. This is why you see gruesome photos of faceless elephant corpses; the poachers have to cut down to the skull in order to get the entire tusk.
Transporting the Goods
Once the tusks have been cut out, they're driven or flown to another city, usually in a different country. Poaching rings have set locations where they send the tusks, either a place with corrupt officials or lax customs regulations that make it easy to get the goods past the government. Often tusks are hidden below other goods, so even if officials search the crates or bags, they may not find the ivory. Then it's time to send the smuggled ivory to market, either on a plane or ship. Most of the time it's taken to Japan, Hong Kong or China.
Read this story by National Geographic, who created fake tusks to track the route of one ivory ring.
Carving the Ivory
After again sneaking the ivory past government officials, the tusks are brought to factories where artists carve them into beautiful pieces. Ivory carving used to be a coveted skill, and few master carvers were around to create these beautiful pieces. Today the market for illegal ivory is booming, creating underground factories where dozens of artists chip away at the tusks to create jewelry, trinkets and souvenirs.
Selling the Tusks
Once ivory is carved, it's next to impossible to tell its age. This means illegal elephant ivory can be sold right next to mammoth ivory, deceiving customers into thinking that they're buying a legal product. Recent research has developed ways of telling legal ivory from illegal ivory, but until it's adopted on a global scale, illegal ivory is the prominent market.
Summing it up
The international ivory trade is one of the largest markets in the world. It brings in billions of dollars every year, and kills over 30,000 African elephant annually. We may not be able to catch the poachers or stop the smuggling rings, but we can choose to hurt their income, by refusing to buy ivory products. Want to join the movement? Take the pledge to be ivory free.
Check out Part 4 of this series, where we look at the human face of poaching. See you soon!
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.