In 1989, a worldwide ban on the international trade in ivory was approved by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and the levels of poaching fell dramatically. The black market prices of ivory slumped. Elephants began to recover their numbers.
But just 10 years later, ‘one-off’ sales were approved by CITES, which allowed Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell more than 49,000 kg of stockpiled ivory to Japan.
In 2002 another sale was approved and 105,000 kg of ivory were shipped to China and Japan. The consequence of so much ‘legitimate’ ivory flooding the market was a foregone conclusion: demand for ivory soared and poaching escalated to new heights.
Despite this, in 2008 CITES allowed yet another sale of stockpiled ivory to China. The notion that a stock of legal ivory would reduce poaching had the opposite effect. Alongside the legal ivory market an illegal market flourished as never before, and poaching soared to unprecedented levels. For the growing class of affluent Chinese, ivory was seen as a high-status commodity.
To meet this insatiable demand for ivory trinkets, tens of thousands of African elephants were being killed each year (estimates were as high as 50,000). In some countries the elephant population crashed by over 50% in less than 10 years. By 2014 the slaughter of elephants across Africa was worse than at any time since 1989 when the international ivory ban was imposed.