Throughout history, the human desire for ivory—used in products from jewelry to piano keys to priceless religious art objects—has far outmatched efforts to stop the killing of African elephants for their tusks. In 2012, investigative journalists Bryan Christy and Aidan Hartley explored the illegal ivory trade and the plight of Africa’s elephants, and documented their work in the National Geographic special Battle for the Elephants.


This video excerpt from that film explores the history of the ivory trade and the resulting devastation of Africa’s elephant population—from 26 million elephants in 1800 to fewer than one million today. The clip examines factors that fueled the “ivory frenzy” of the early 1900s and documents the steady and startling decline in the elephant population. A worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1989 led to a rebound in the population, to about a million. But in 1999 and 2008, due to pressure from countries in Asia and southern Africa, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allowed two sanctioned sales of ivory. The video looks at attempts to stem the killing—attempts that largely have proven unsuccessful, evidenced by the fact that more than 25,000 elephants were killed in Africa in 2012 alone.

  1. Why is it important to be aware of the history of the ivory trade?

    • Answer

      Answers will vary. Awareness of the history of the illegal ivory trade will increase understanding of the role market demands play in the decline of the elephant population. Knowing the issues surrounding the decline of the elephant population will help people critically examine needs for conservation of this natural resource.


  2. What major factor influenced CITES’ decisions to allow the sale of stockpiled ivory, and what was the result of the decisions?

    • Answer

      The main reason for CITES’ lifting of the ban on sales of stockpiled ivory was the increased demands for ivory from southern African and Asian countries. The lifting of the ban for these special sales had the effect of sanctioning illegal trade in tusks and increasing poaching once again.


  3. Why has bringing the world's attention to the near-extinction of the elephant population in Africa been unsuccessful in stopping the killing of elephants?

    • Answer

      Even with an ivory ban in place and global public opinion strongly favoring enforcement of the ban, the demand for ivory continues, perhaps stronger than ever. The money made through the illegal ivory trade is a key factor in losing the fight to stop poaching and smuggling poached ivory.



(Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) international agreement whose aim is "to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival."


management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.


to hunt, trap, or fish illegally.


buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.