Ivory has been desired since ancient times because its relative softness made it easier for the very wealthy to carve intricate ornamental objects. For the past hundred years, the ivory trade in Africa has been closely controlled, yet the trade is thriving.
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Ivory Trade In Antiquity
In the days of the Roman Empire, ivory exported from Africa came largely from North African elephants. These elephants were also used in Roman Coliseum battles and sometimes as transport in battle and were hunted to extinction around the 4th century CE.
From Medieval Times To The Renaissance
By the 800s, the African ivory trade was booming again. Over the years, traders carried ivory along the Trans-Saharan trade routes from West Africa to the North African coast or brought East African ivory along the coast to market cities in North-East Africa and the Middle East. From these depots, ivory was carried across the Mediterranean to Europe or Central and East Asia, although the latter regions could more easily obtain ivory from Southeast Asian elephants.
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European Merchants And Explorers (1500-1800)
As Portuguese sailors began to explore the West African coastline in the 1400s, they soon entered the lucrative ivory trade, and other European sailors were not far behind. During these years, ivory was still almost exclusively acquired by African hunters, and as demand continued, the elephant population near the coast declined. In response, African hunters traveled further and further inland in search of herds of elephants.
As the ivory trade moved inland, hunters and traders needed a way to transport the ivory to the coast. In West Africa, trade was centered on several rivers that emptied into the Atlantic, but in Central and East Africa, there were fewer rivers to access. Sleeping sickness and other tropical diseases also made it nearly impossible to use animals (such as horses, oxen, or camels) to transport goods in West, Central, or Middle-East Africa which meant that people were the primary movers of goods.
Trade Of Ivory And Slaves (1700–1900)
The need for human porters meant that the growing trade in ivory and slaves went hand-in-hand, especially in East and Central Africa. In those areas, enslaved African and Arab traders traveled inland from the coast, buying or hunting large numbers of captives and ivory, and then forcing the enslaved people to carry the ivory as they landed ashore. Once they reached the coast, merchants sold both the enslaved people and the ivory for huge profits.
As the demand for ivory increased, the elephant population declined. In 1900, several African colonies passed sporting laws that limited hunting, although recreational hunting was possible for those who could afford expensive licenses.
Poaching And The Legalized Ivory Trade, Today
At the time of independence in the 1960s, most African countries retained or extended colonial sporting laws, either outlawing hunting or allowing it only with the purchase of an expensive license. However, poaching and the ivory trade continued.
In 1990, with the exception of those in Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, African elephants were added to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, meaning that the participating countries Were not agreed to allow your business for commercial purposes. Between 1990 and 2000, elephants in Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia were added to Appendix II, which allows trade in ivory but requires an export permit to do so.
However, many argue that any legal trade in ivory encourages poaching and adds a shield to this because illegal ivory can be publicly displayed once purchased. It closely resembles legalized ivory, for which there remains a relatively high demand for both Asian medicine and decorative items.