When Nature Speaks … Wildlife. Be calm. Love an elephant. What everybody should know about these gentle giants.



That is … until you see them return to
the lands and vegetation we have
encroached into, when we settled in their habitat.

When elephants leave their habitats for
their watering holes, for however long,
it does not mean they have resettled.

And so, it becomes hard for us to
imagine the way a child intuitively
understands these gentle giants.  Instead, …

When we think of elephants, we conjure up
images of majesty and aggression!


  1. Introduction
  2. Basic Facts about elephants
    • The impact elephants have on the ecology
    • Historical reasons for the demise of elephants
    • What is fuelling human’s obsession for hunting?
    • Why men trophy hunt?
    • About the elephants
    • About the tusk
    • About the poachers and the trade
    • About the end consumer
  5. Beijing master ivory carvers cling to their trade
  6. Who is the silent voice and what does it say?

Population. At the turn of the 20th century, there were a few million African elephants and about 100,000 Asian elephants. Today, there are an estimated 450,000 – 700,000 African elephants and between 35,000 – 40,000 wild Asian elephants.  Most captives are endangered Asian elephants; African bush elephants and African forest elephants are less amenable to training.  Animal rights organizations estimate there are 15,000 to 20,000 elephants in captivity worldwide. That brings the total number of elephants today to about 500,000.   Half a million.

The real question is, what would you do if it had been the global human population that has been decimated by up to three quarters of its numbers by another species?  And you are left with a quarter of you!




Elephants are among the most intelligent of the creatures with whom we share the planet, with complex consciousnesses that are capable of strong emotions.  Across Africa they have inspired respect from the people that share the landscape with them, giving them a strong cultural significance.  As icons of the continent elephants are tourism magnets, attracting funding that helps protect wilderness areas.  They are also keystone species, playing an important role in maintaining the biodiversity of the ecosystems in which they live.

Attribution:  http://www.savetheelephants.org/about-elephants-2-3-2/importance-of-elephants/


What is the spiritual meaning of an elephant?

Symbolic Elephant Meaning. … Symbolic elephant meaning deals primarily with strength, honor, stability and tenacity, among other attributes.  To the Hindu way of thought, the elephant is found in the form of Ganesha who is the god of luck, fortune, protection and is a blessing upon all new projects.


What does elephant symbolize?

Many African cultures revere the African Elephant as a symbol of strength and power.  It is also praised for its size, longevity, stamina, mental faculties, cooperative spirit, and loyalty.  South Africa, uses elephant tusks in their coat of arms to represent wisdom, strength, moderation and eternity.



What hunts the elephant?

Elephants generally do not have predators (animals that eat them) due to their massive size. Newborn elephants are however vulnerable to attacks from lions,tigers, and hyenas. The biggest danger to elephants are humans; elephants have been hunted for their tusks to near extinction in some cases.Oct 8, 2015

Yet, today they stand at the brink on its way of being wiped out.  Paving the way for the last man standing.  The man.

Yet, did you know that ….


As you read the article, notice the elephant (what we know about them: the facts, the emotions, the money trail, the larger-than-life images this animal conjures in our minds) that this majestic animal has brought into the room … and then, notice what is the “elephant that is not in the room”?

What do you think that is?  There right there, is our leverage.



Habitat loss is one of the key threats facing elephants. Many climate change projections indicate that key portions of elephants’ habitat will become significantly hotter and drier, resulting in poorer foraging conditions and threatening calf survival. Increasing conflict with human populations taking over more and more elephant habitat and poaching for ivory are additional threats that are placing the elephant’s future at risk.

Elephant, © Geoff Hall


© Geoff Hall

Defenders of Wildlife is working through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to maintain a ban on the sale of ivory as well as on regulations that govern worldwide elephant protection.

Of the two species, African elephants are divided into two subspecies (savannah and forest), while the Asian elephant is divided into four subspecies (Sri Lankan, Indian, Sumatran and Borneo). Asian elephants have been very important to Asian culture for thousands of years – they have been domesticated and are used for religious festivals, transportation and to move heavy objects.


Staples: Grasses, leaves, bamboo, bark, roots. Elephants are also known to eat crops like banana and sugarcane which are grown by farmers. Adult elephants eat 300-400 lbs of food per day.


At the turn of the 20th century, there were a few million African elephants and about 100,000 Asian elephants. Today, there are an estimated 450,000 – 700,000 African elephants and between 35,000 – 40,000 wild Asian elephants.


African savannah elephants are found in savannah zones in 37 countries south of the Sahara Desert. African forest elephants inhabit the dense rainforests of west and central Africa. The Asian elephant is found in India, Sri Lanka, China and much of Southeast Asia.


Elephants form deep family bonds and live in tight matriarchal family groups of related females called a herd. The herd is led by the oldest and often largest female in the herd, called a matriarch. Herds consist of 8-100 individuals depending on terrain and family size. When a calf is born, it is raised and protected by the whole matriarchal herd. Males leave the family unit between the ages of 12-15 and may lead solitary lives or live temporarily with other males.

Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have memories that span many years. It is this memory that serves matriarchs well during dry seasons when they need to guide their herds, sometimes for tens of miles, to watering holes that they remember from the past. They also display signs of grief, joy, anger and play.

Recent discoveries have shown that elephants can communicate over long distances by producing a sub-sonic rumble that can travel over the ground faster than sound through air. Other elephants receive the messages through the sensitive skin on their feet and trunks. It is believed that this is how potential mates and social groups communicate.


Mating Season: Mostly during the rainy season.

Gestation: 22 months.
Litter size: 1 calf (twins rare).
Calves weigh between 200-250 lbs at birth. At birth, a calf’s trunk has no muscle tone, therefore it will suckle through its mouth. It takes several months for a calf to gain full control of its trunk.

Abstract from: https://defenders.org/elephant/basic-facts


The Impact Elephants have on the Ecology

Elephants are the keystone species of their habitat.

The planet earth is inhabited by diverse array of living organisms such as microorganisms, plants, animals and human beings which collectively constitute the biodiversity.  Each and every element of the living component of the system has its own role, either positive or negative, to play as a system component. So preservation and conservation of living organisms, whether they are tiny or large, become immense important in playing beneficial role in maintaining biodiversity.

Mega-herbivorous animal such as elephant has major impact on the terrestrial ecosystems in which they live and thus on the animals that depend on these habitats.  Elephant can be referred as “keystone species” because it facilitates:

    • Feeding by other herbivores that disperse seeds and supports large assemblages of invertebrates, such as dung beetles, and


    • Lower plants such as algae and fungi apart from enriching soil nutrients through dung piles.


    • These algae and fungi are preferred nutrient plants for some reptiles such as monitor lizard and star tortoise in the semiarid tropical forests.


    • Dung beetle accumulation attracts many insectivorous birds.


    • Dung deposition into water holes is being benefited to the Pisces and amphibians.


  • Wherever they live, elephants leave dung that is full of seeds from the many plants they eat. When this dung is deposited the seeds are sown and grow into new grasses, bushes and trees, boosting the health of the savannah ecosystem.
  • Seed dispersal through alimentary canal induces germination and survival capacity of the seedlings to maintain the forest heterogeneity; some species rely entirely upon elephants for seed dispersal.

Elephant also does some of the silvicultural practices such as

  • Creation of paths in dense forest.  When forest elephants eat, they create gaps in the vegetation. These gaps allow new plants to grow and create pathways for other smaller animals to use.
  • On the savannahs, elephants feeding on tree sprouts and shrubs help to keep the plains open and able to support the plains game that inhabit these ecosystems.
  • Maintenance of grazing lawns and height of the trees and thinning in thick vegetation cover to keep the sustainable utility of the forest.
  • Identification of subsoil water and natural salt licks through elephants’ strong sense is also shared by the other animals especially the herbivores for which intake of minerals from the natural soil is most important for many physiological activities.
  • During the dry season, elephants use their tusks to dig for water. This not only allows the elephants to survive in dry environments and when droughts strike, but also provides water for other animals that share harsh habitats.

The pachyderm (a very large mammal with thick skin, especially an elephant, rhinoceros, or hippopotamus) is under severe threat due to various conservation problems such as loss of habitat (see example below that of forest cover in Sumatra), habitat quality and corridors, reduction of home range, population increase, impact of developmental activities, human-elephant conflict issues and poaching for ivory.  Among the factors, some of them may be responsible for major proportions, and some of them involve less proportion.  But these are the reasons listed as conservation problems for the long-run conservation of elephants.

Abstract from: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-10-6605-4_16




Historically, trade and capture are responsible for elephants’ demise

Since the Proboscidea originated 60 million years ago, the order has included some 10 families, 45 genera and 185 species and subspecies, in a spectacular diversity of forms.  The African (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis) and Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) existing today are the sole remnants of that remarkable evolutionary radiation.  Representing a tiny fraction of their former numbers, the living elephants survive in only small pockets of the land they once roamed.  In many areas elephant populations have already gone extinct or are highly endangered.

Over centuries legal and illegal hunting (“poaching”) for the commercial ivory trade and, in Asia, the capture of elephants for human use, have been largely responsible for the elephant’s demise.  The number of wild Asian elephants now comprise less than a tenth of all remaining elephants, and continue to decline in shrinking habitat.  In Africa, elephants once inhabited the entire continent, from the Mediterranean down to its southern tip, but the ivory trade coupled with human expansion caused a continental decline in their numbers.  By circa 1600 North Africa was devoid of elephants. In modern Africa, poaching for ivory has been fuelled by poverty, political instability and civil unrest coupled with the easy availability of arms.  In recent history, between 1979 and 1989, Africa’s elephants underwent a dramatic and devastating decline, falling from approximately 1.3 million animals to an estimated 609,000. Human greed and rising prices of ivory were responsible for the appalling slaughter.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are imperiled by poaching and habitat loss.  Despite global attention to the plight of elephants, their population sizes and trends are uncertain or unknown over much of Africa.  To conserve this iconic species, conservationists need timely, accurate data on elephant populations.

Abstract from: https://www.elephantvoices.org/threats-to-elephants/-killed-for-their-ivory.html

There is an estimated population of 352,271 savannah elephants on study sites in 18 countries, representing approximately 93% of all savannah elephants in those countries.  Elephant populations in survey areas with historical data show it has decreased by an estimated 144,000 from 2007 to 2014, and populations are currently shrinking by 8% per year continent-wide, primarily due to poaching.  Though 84% of elephants occurred in protected areas, many protected areas had carcass ratios that indicated high levels of elephant mortality.  Results of the GEC show the necessity of action to end the African elephants’ downward trajectory by preventing poaching and protecting habitat.

Abstract from: https://peerj.com/articles/2354/


What is fuelling the obsession of trophy hunting poaching?

Why are savagery and violence so omnipresent among humans?
We suggest that hunting behaviour is fascinating and attractive, a desire that makes temporary deprivation from physical needs, pain, sweat, blood, and ultimately the willingness to kill tolerable and even appetitive.
Evolutionary development into the “perversion” of the urge to hunt humans, that is to say the transfer of this hunt to members of one’s own species, has been nurtured by the resultant advantage of personal and social power and dominance.  While breakdown of the inhibition towards intra-specific killing would endanger any animal species, controlled inhibition was enabled in humans in that higher regulatory systems, such as frontal lobe-based executive functions, prevent the involuntary derailment of hunting behaviour.
If this control – such as in child soldiers for example – is not learnt, the brutality towards humans remains fascinating and appealing.  Blood must flow in order to kill.  It is hence an appetitive cue as is the struggling of the victim.
Hunting for men, more rarely for women, is fascinating and emotionally arousing with the parallel release of testosterone, serotonin and endorphins, which can produce feelings of euphoria and alleviate pain. Bonding and social rites (e.g. initiation) set up the contraints for both hunting and violent disputes.  Children learn which conditions legitimate aggressive behaviour and which not.  Big game hunting as well as attack of other communities is more successful in groups – men also perceive it as more pleasurable.  This may explain the fascination with gladiatorial combat, violent computer games but also ritualized forms like football.
(Blog Author’s Note:  And as such conjures notions such as the “last man standing”  must necessarily therefore mean someone is more strong or witty than the rest who did not stay around to remain standing as he could.  Therefore, as such (in conclusion) no one, not his mother or his wife say he is ‘therefore not man enough’ for her.)



Prominent evolutionary anthropologists (Brian Codding and Kristen Hawkes from the University of Utah) have studied hunter-gatherer populations for decades.

Interestingly, analyses of the types of animals hunter-gatherer men target are very similar in that they are often the largest animals in the landscape.  Importantly, they are also animals with high ‘failure rates’.  That is, men are likely to come home empty handed from hunting.  This is very different from women hunters, who target smaller animals that they are more assured to acquire and bring home as food.

On that hunt, on a lake outside Tampa, I met Jay, a hugely successful New York photographer and author, who said, “I watched Romancing The Stone as a kid. In the movie, Michael Douglas kills a crocodile and turns it into a pair of cowboy boots. That’s what I’m here. I want to wear a pair of cowboy boots and to be able to say to my friends, ‘I killed these’”.

And kill them he did, from a flat-bottomed boat after he first harpooned it with a buoy tied to a rope so it couldn’t swim away, making Jay holler “this is like something out of Jaws!”

Men who target these large, difficult-to-acquire animals, therefore, signal to others that they can absorb the costs of an inefficient behaviour.  It signals that they have high-quality underlying mental and physical characteristics to be able to absorb such costs.

This ‘costly signalling’ to which it’s referred in the evolutionary literature, provides a way for men to accrue status. And status is universally important for men to ward off competition and attract mates. (I’ll note here that hunter-gatherer populations consume the animals they kill, unlike most trophy hunters.  In no way do I advocate any opposition to the ways in which Indigenous peoples earn their livelihood).

What are your major messages?

We believe this ‘costly signalling’ model applies equally well to trophy hunters from the developed world. By paying big bucks to trophy hunt, or even forgoing smaller individuals within populations to wait for chances at the very biggest, imposes costs on trophy hunters. And it’s prestigious to signal that you can absorb these costs.  In other words, trophy hunters, whether they realize it or not, are likely hunting for status.  It’s like driving a luxury car, though in this case the lives of animals are taken.

How do your findings extend and differ from what others have written about trophy hunting?

People, including me, were confused as to why men do this.  Are they sick in the head? Bloodthirsty?  Some believe that these are appropriate terms.  For me, this evolutionary explanation goes deeper and asked, why did this behaviour evolve?  We think we offer a good explanation.

Some might argue, ‘Well, if this is natural behaviour, then it’s justified’.  I believe this is a dangerous argument referred to as the naturalistic fallacy.   My colleague and mentor, Dr. Paul Paquet of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, makes this abundantly clear by reminding us, “Trophy hunting can neither be justified for being natural nor as an aid to help populations, given the enormous costs paid by individual animals – their lives.”

How might one apply what you found to put a stop to this reprehensible practice that some claim they do “in the name of conservation”?

One interesting observation post-Cecil (the lion’s death by trophy hunting) is that demand for lion hunting has declined owing to prohibitions on transporting the remains on planes, etc.  If hunters cannot bring the trophies home to boast with, then they have no costly signal.




The Elephant

How many elephants are killed by poachers every year?

100 Elephants are killed per day.  The U.N. says up to 100 elephants are being slaughtered a day in Africa by poachers taking part in the illegal ivory trade.  Mar 19, 2015.

How many wild elephants are left in the world?

Population at the turn of the 20th century, there were a few million African elephants and about 100,000 Asian elephants.  Today, there are an estimated 450,000 – 700,000 African elephants and between 35,000 – 40,000 wild Asian elephants.  That is a third or less than a third or even by as much as a quarter of the population of elephants that existed at the turn of the last century.  Three-quarters of them have disappeared effectively.

Endangered Asian elephants

Asian elephants are even more endangered than African elephants — but the threat isn’t poaching so much as human encroachment. The Asian species is smaller than the African, and none of the females and only some of the males have tusks. While some are hunted for ivory or meat, most of the Asian elephants taken from the wild are not killed, but domesticated for zoos, safari tourism, or timber hauling. There are only about 30,000 remaining wild Asian elephants, while 15,000 live in captivity. The wild herds in India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand are dwindling, too, as human development shrinks their habitat. Many populations are now cut off from migration routes and forced to inbreed.

Abstract from: http://theweek.com/articles/449437/tragic-price-ivory

The Tusk

What Exactly Is an Elephant Tusk?

An elephant’s tusk is a tooth. It’s an elongated incisor, one-third of which is embedded into the elephant’s skull. The tusk is made up of nerve endings and pulp matter, and removal is deadly.

Elephants use their tusks in a variety of ways. They are used to protect themselves and their herd from predators, and elephants can even use their tusks for digging water holes. However, elephants are also anintegral part of the environment. They are sometimes referred to as “mega gardeners,” and without them, hundreds of animal and plant species would cease to exist as well.

Why are Elephants Killed for Their Tusks?

Up to 70 percent of ivory poached goes to China, where half a kilogram of it can sell for as much as 1,000 U.S. dollars. This increase in demand has been fueled by the growth of a middle class in China.  People can now afford the material that they have grown up believing is better than diamonds.

Do Elephant Tusks fall off?

Tusks are specialized teeth and elephants have only one set that continue growing throughout the elephant’s life. They are sometimes broken off as a result of natural movements, such as digging and sparring with other elephants. If a tusk is not broken off at its root, then yes- the tusk will continue to grow.Feb 2, 2010

Can you cut off an Elephant’s Tusks without killing it?

A tusk can be removed without killing the elephant. … But poachers use darts, poison and high-powered automatic rifles with night scopes to take elephants down and, while they are dying, the tusks are gouged out of from the living elephant’s skull. Jul 30, 2014

The Poacher & The Trade

How much is a pound of Ivory worth?

Ivory fetched prices as much as $1,500 per pound due to demand in Asia, where elephant tusks are ornately carved into art.Jun 2, 2016

Poachers kill elephants for their valuable tusks — a single pound of ivory can sell for $1,500, and tusks can weigh 250 pounds.  That is USD375,000 (or just over a 1/3 million dollars) per tusk!  Nov 7, 2016

How extensive is the poaching?

Poachers are now slaughtering up to 35,000 of the estimated 500,000 African elephants every year for their tusks. A single male elephant’s two tusks can weigh more than 250 pounds, with a pound of ivory fetching as much as $1,500 on the black market. The ivory is so valuable because all across Asia — particularly in China — ivory figurines are given as traditional gifts, and ivory chopsticks, hair ornaments, and jewelry are highly prized luxuries. “China regards ivory as a cultural heritage; they are not going to ban it,” said Grace Gabriel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Many Chinese consumers don’t realize that elephants must be killed for their ivory; in one survey, more than two thirds of Chinese respondents said they thought tusks grew back like fingernails.

What impact has the slaughter had on the elephants?

Elephants are highly intelligent, social creatures that live in matriarchal groups, and poaching has ravaged much of their social structure. The biggest tusks are found on the largest breeding males and on the oldest females, who lead the elephant troops.  Where these animals are targeted and killed, elephant populations are reduced to leaderless groups of traumatized orphans huddling together. In the past year, even they are being wiped out, as some poachers have started dumping cyanide into watering holes, killing every animal that drinks there.  Last year, poachers killed an estimated 300 elephants in Zimbabwe’s largest park, Hwange, by lacing watering holes and salt licks with cyanide.  To read more about the impact poaching of elephants have had on Botswana, more here.

Who are the poachers?

Since the industry is illegal, those who run it largely come from criminal syndicates or terrorist organizations. Al-Shabab, the Somalia-based wing of al Qaida, raises $600,000 a month from poaching to fund its activities. Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, the rebel group notorious for enslaving children, also raises money through poaching. “Poaching has become one of the most profitable criminal activities there is,” says Peter Seligmann, the CEO of Conservation International. Chinese mafia organizations mostly do the purchasing and distribution of ivory after it’s been obtained, selling it mostly in China and Southeast Asia but sometimes to markets in the U.S.

Why is the price so high?

When ivory became contraband, the supply got scarcer, but demand remained strong.  In 1989, the international community passed a global ban on the trade in new ivory to stop the killing of elephants. Only ivory that had been harvested before 1989 could be sold, so the ivory carving industry in China crumbled, and with it the demand for tusks.  Elephant populations rebounded — so much so that in 1999 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global organization, decided to allow a “one-off” sale of pre-ban, stockpiled ivory to Japan (what did we not say here?).

Then in 2008 it authorized another “one-off”sale, this time to Japanese and Chinesemarkets. The Chinese carving industry roared back to life, as the Chinese government licensed dozens of carving factories and retail outlets. Since there’s no way to distinguish between pre-ban and new ivory, the illegal ivory trade has accelerated to meet the demand, and poaching is now worse than before the global ban.

(REUTERS/James Akena)

What steps are being taken to stop poaching?

Under pressure from some member nations, CITES refuses to institute a complete ban on the ivory trade.  But the U.S. is taking its own measures. The U.S. is the second-biggest ivory market, after China.  In a symbolic gesture last fall, U.S. officials smashed 6 tons of contraband ivory, including tusks and carvings, that had been seized from smugglers or confiscated from unwitting tourists. And in February, the Obama administration announced it would change regulations to ban interstate sales of all ivory except certified antiques, limit elephant trophy imports to two per hunter, and end commercial imports of antique ivory.

Is China cooperating?

Following the U.S.’s ivory crush, the Chinese government destroyed 6 tons this January, and Hong Kong authorities say they will destroy their 30-ton stockpile, one of the largest in the world.  Chinese environmentalists have also begun educating the public about the dire consequences of buying ivory. But it’s a tough sell in a country where ivory has long symbolized wisdom and nobility.With more disposable income in mainland China, many people are flaunting their wealth, and ivory is seen as a luxury product that confers status,” says Tom Milliken of the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network.

Why is the ban so hard to enforce?

There is no reliable way to tell pre-ban from post-ban ivory, or a real antique from a fake — in any country.  “It’s not like you walk into a store and find someone selling cocaine, which is illegal on its face,” said Edward Grace, deputy assistant director for law enforcement at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. In Chinese and U.S. shops alike, consumers simply assume that ivory trinkets are legal, and there is no way for law enforcement to prove that any particular item was made after 1989. Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, says there’s only one real solution: “We need to learn from history and permanently shut down all ivory trade — international and domestic.

The End Consumer

Why is Ivory so popular in China?

A carved ivory ship model

Ivory is often used to make elaborate and expensive ornaments in China.

In China and Hong Kong, ivory is seen as precious material and is used in ornaments and jewelry. It’s also sometimes used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Some rich Chinese people think that owning ivory makes them look more successful. Others think that ivory will bring them good luck.

China has the biggest ivory trade in the world and wildlife experts believe that around 70 per cent of the world’s ivory ends up there.

It is said that buyers of ivory don’t understand they have blood on their hands. That notion is startling given where we are in the timeline of civilization and the increasingly global dissemination of knowledge.  Conservation efforts have never reached so far and wide through media as they do today.  So how can people not know about the tragedy behind their white gold trinkets? Accountability for this gross misconception seems to lie with the Chinese government.


But from uncovering this bizarre ignorance, change has been set into motion.  A variety of conservation campaigns have been aimed at educating the middle class — those most likely to purchase ivory.  People who have seen these campaigns, such as posters depicting how an elephant’s life is sacrificed to harvest their tusks, are far less likely to purchase ivory products.  Japan was previously the largest demander of ivory, before organizations and celebrities raised awareness and reduced the consumption by 99 percent.

“Elephant teeth” is the direct translation of the Chinese word for ivory, xiangya, and it’s possible this has contributed to the idea that elephants are not harmed during ivory harvesting — an IFAW survey revealed that 70 percent of Chinese polled did not know that ivory was plucked from murdered elephants.


Beijing’s master ivory carvers cling to a controversial art

Beijing (CNN)When Li Chunke started carving ivory in 1964, the number of elephants in Africa was still on the rise. Demand for ivory in China was practically non-existent and tusks could be bought for under $7 a kilogram.

Today, this figure is closer to $1,100 — according to research by Save the Elephants.

But while this marks a significant increase over the course of Li’s career, the price of coveted xiangya (elephant teeth) has almost halved over the last 18 months.

An endangered art form?

Conservationists have welcomed the recent drop in demand, attributing it to awareness campaigns and President Xi Jinping’s commitment to abolish the ivory trade in China.

But for 65-year-old Li, these changing attitudes threaten an ancient art form and the livelihoods of many carvers.  “Ivory carving represents Chinese traditional culture” he says, sipping green tea in his small apartment in Beijing. “Chinese people love it because it is an ancient skill — it’s a practice that belongs to the imperial arts.”

At the state-owned factory where he spent his five-decade career, Li would sculpt everything from small trinkets to full-length tusks adorned with classical scenes.

Hong Kong to phase out ivory trade

Alternative raw materials to ivory

Legal restrictions mean that he is rarely able to keep raw ivory at his home.  Nonetheless, on the far side of his living room I find a small workshop besieged by chisels, drill bits and tools.  Some are electronic, but the majority are simple hand tools — the sort he trained with. From the clutter, Li picks out figurines carved from a variety of different materials.

Ivory’s rare combination of density and smoothness makes it ideal for intricate carving, but there are alternatives. Hippo, narwhal and walrus tusks possess similar qualities.  “When we don’t have ivory, we also use beeswax and agarwood,” he explains.

Li shows me a small horse statuette and an ancient goddess fashioned from a piece of mammoth tusk — an ivory substitute excavated from the Siberian permafrost.

“When we made carvings for export [in the 1960s] the products had to represent Chinese traditional culture — it was merchandise,” he recalls. “Now I can carve on any theme, including religion and modern life.”

Hong Kong’s illegal ivory trade exposed

Legal vs. illegal ivory trade

Since retiring from the factory in 2013, Li estimates he makes fewer than 10 carvings a year, and can spend as long as two months on a single item.  He appears despondent about elephant poaching and the black market that are now associated with his industry.  “We are legal ivory-carving professionals,” he says. “The ivory we used was from natural deaths. We ought to protect wildlife. I like animals and I’ve kept a puppy as a pet.  I find it shocking that elephants are killed by men.”

With the worldwide ban on ivory in 1989, factories like Li’s were able to stay open, as China still permitted domestic trade. A licensing system allowed the continued import of tusks sourced from natural elephant deaths and police seizures.

But the distinction between legal and illegal trade is becoming blurred, say conservationists.  A 2011 investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that almost 60% of licensed vendors and carving factories in China were involved in black market trade.

A high-profile campaign featuring former basketball star Yao Ming argues that all ivory consumption — even the licensed trade — feeds the cycle of killing.  “Yao Ming’s ‘no buying, no killing’ is only partly right — we still have to think about the inheritance of traditional Chinese culture,” Li says.  “Of course, the raw material can be replaced by alternatives, which is why my students also use woods and jade. But some of the nuances of carving — ones that can only be reflected in ivory — are at risk.”

Carvers are turning to ivory substitutes including beeswax, agarwood and even mammoth tusk dug up from Siberian permafrost.

Carvers are turning to ivory substitutes including beeswax, agarwood and even mammoth tusk dug up from Siberian permafrost.

Rise in demand for mammoth tusks

On the other side of central Beijing, one of Li’s students, Li Jiulong (no relation), leads me into his small, dusty workshop. The 26-year-old shares the space with four other apprentices. A fellow carver sits practicing her technique on a small block of wood, her engravings guided by ink markings.

Work surfaces are arranged in a square, each littered with hand tools for breaking down large chunks of tusk and more accurate electronic ones for finer details.  While his master is old enough to ignore the diminishing demand for ivory, the younger Li must keep his options open.

In addition to his apprenticeship he is also undertaking a master’s degree which sees him working with lacquer — a traditional colored finish applied to wood.  He can obtain ivory through “the proper channels,” but Li spends much of his time carving other materials, including mammoth tusks.

“These tusks have been buried underground for a long time, which can cause cracks and change their color,” he explains, sketching out their differing patterns of grain on a piece of paper. “They would [originally have been] white like the elephant tusks, but they’re also more compact than normal ivory.”

Imports of mammoth tusks from Hong Kong (the main route bringing them in from Russia) has more than tripled since 2000. But the young apprentice retains some hope for traditional ivory carving, despite the recent drop in demand.

“It’s true that ivory won’t be huge business in the future but it won’t vanish. It is part of our cultural heritage,” he says.  “It will survive and keep its place,” he argues.

Abstract from: 




What is the “elephant” that is not in the room? Literally.

We can see what they do.  Can we see why it happens?
What do we not understand as yet?

What would that silent voice say to us?


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