Protecting Elephants

There is an increased demand for elephant ivory around the world, including in the United States, which ranks 2nd as the world’s largest consumer of wildlife products. In 2012, 35,000 African elephants (an average of 96 elephants a day) were illegally killed for their tusks by poachers. Sadly, that number continues to rise as demand for ivory increases. A ban announced on 6/2/16 by the Obama administration now makes it illegal to buy or sell ivory in the United States. This is great news, but it’s important to note that this ban won’t stop all ivory trading; as long as there’s a demand for ivory, elephants will continue to die.

What is a tusk?

Both male and female African elephants have tusks. Tusks are rootless teeth that  continue to grow in length throughout the lifetime of the elephant. Elephants use their tusks to pry bark off trees, dig for roots and minerals, and for defense and sexual display. Though we call it ivory a tusk is actually made of dentine, which is the same material found in human teeth. The only way to remove a tusk from an elephant is either through a very long, complicated dental procedure or to kill the elephant and cut the tusk out.

Why is there a demand for elephant tusks?

Ivory is easily carved into beautiful decorative art pieces. In some cultures owning an ivory carving is a status symbol as ivory has always been expensive to purchase. In recent years, the demand has grown as the middle class in countries such as China and the United States has increased.

What is the impact of poaching?

In 2011, 40 tons of illegal ivory were seized around the world, which means that approximately 4,000 elephants were killed for their tusks. From 2010-2012, 100,000 elephants were killed for their tusks. Today it is estimated that there are fewer than 420,000 wild elephants left.

Killing one elephant for its ivory has crucial impacts on the whole herd. Poachers often target older females for their large tusks. During years of severe drought, these older matriarchs knew where to lead the herd to find food and water. Without this guidance, herds with matriarchs too young to remember the previous drought can lose more than half of their calves in a drought year because they don’t know the way to distant water sources.

Elephants play an important role in their habitat, and many other species depend on them. They rip out trees and roots making room for the grasses that other animals eat, and they dig water holes that many animals depend on. Elephant dung is great fertilizer, and some plants must pass through an elephant’s digestive system in order to sprout.

Who are the poachers?

Today, few poachers kill elephants for subsistence. Most poaching is driven by the commercial demand for ivory and is done by heavily armed, dangerous criminals. Worldwide, illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking is the 4th largest international crime (behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking). Recently, funding for terrorist organizations has been linked to profits from the sale of ivory.

What does the recent ban on buying and selling ivory mean?

On 6/2/16, the Obama administration announced a federal ban on buying and selling ivory in the United States. This act will make a big difference because pre-existing laws were complex and confusing, allowing determined individuals to outsmart the system without consequence. However, there will still be people who smuggle ivory into the U.S. illegally in order to reap big financial rewards. Eliminating demand is the ONLY way to end the killing of elephants for their tusks.

How Can I Help?

Join the millions of people around the world who have pledged to protect elephants by committing to never buy ivory. If the demand for ivory disappears, so too will the killing. Being an informed citizen and supporting legislative efforts to ban the sale of ivory is also very important. You can thank our leaders for the recent federal ban on ivory here.  They need to hear from us to know how many people support this historic ban! Lastly, help us spread the word. Many people in the United States are unaware that the U.S. is the 2nd largest market for elephant ivory products.  We need to stand united as a country that understands that every piece of ivory comes from a dead elephant.

To learn more:


Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants Project

CITES National Ivory Action Plans

US Fish and Wildlife Ivory Ban Q&A

US Fish and Wildlife Service 1989 Ivory Ban

Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants

AZA Elephant Species Survival Plan


Reid Park Zoo is a proud supporter of /partner with the following elephant conservation projects:

Tarangire Elephant Project

Tanzania Conservation Resource Center

International Elephant Foundation

96 Elephants.org