By Jonny Vannucci
U.S. President and adventurer, Theodore Roosevelt, once declared that “No other animal, not the lion himself, is so constant a theme of talk, and a subject of such unflagging interest round the camp-fires of African hunters and in the native villages of African wilderness, as the Elephant.”4 Though the elephant is a majestic, intelligent, awe-inspiring animal, this is not why they were the talk of African Hunters. Ever since the late 19th century, elephants have been hunted for their tusks, which humans have turned into a commodity, ivory. The ivory trade has made major impacts on the African economy, the lives of the people in Africa, and most severely on African elephant populations. Ivory illustrates the foundational issue of the Anthropocene: excessive hunting to make a profit, which ends in depletion of wildlife populations.
Ewart Scott Grogan, a British explorer, made it his goal to travel the length of Africa, from Cape Town to Cairo. While in Africa, Grogan decided that his primary ambition was to “slay rhinos, lions, and elephants.”2 Grogan wrote a memoir while on the expedition, that allows readers to see his lack of empathy, as he explicitly states his process of killing elephants for the purpose of making a profit on ivory.2 Ewart Grogan was a respected European entrepreneur at the time, which shows that overall, during the early 20th centaury, there was a disconnect between western humans and wildlife. What is particularly alarming, is the fact that Grogan spoke about the “alarming death rates of the elephants,” yet he still killed the animals for ivory himself.2 Grogan gave a first hand account of the dwindling elephant populations, as they were at the beginning of his time in Africa, as he stated that “thousands of elephants used to roam the elephant marsh,” however, in just a few years, the population “became endangered.”2 The elephant community was becoming ever more endangered as more hunters flocked towards the African plains. Coincidentally, Ewart Scott Grogan was not the only westerner to explore Africa, it became common place in the early 1900s for rich, white, male westerners to hunt big game in Africa. Teddy Roosevelt, who has been considered a conservationist and “champion of national parks,” administered an expedition to Africa, in order to hunt big game and bring back ivory to the U.S. Roosevelt’s hunting excursion is telling of accepted beliefs in America at the time, as a celebrated “conservationist” was hunting African wildlife to bring back to the states. Especially since Roosevelt himself, expressed concern about the elephant population, as he advocated that “[elephants] are not able to establish a presence anymore” as they are so heavily hunted for ivory.4 Though TR realized that there was an epidemic occurring due to the ivory trade, he still insisted that it would be “silly to stop the killing of elephants” and that it is “incompatible with the existence of man when he has emerged from the stage of lowest savagery to not hunt” so “the giant among existing four- footed creatures should be permitted to vanish from the face of the Earth.”4 This statement is coming directly from the 26th president of the United States, a beloved public figure in America. It is ironic that a man, who was revered for his dedication to preservation, would play a role in harming wildlife populations. As such, Roosevelt’s comments and actions illustrate the anthropocentric view amongst white, middle class America at the beginning of the early 20th century. The primary concern amid these populations were commodities and making a profit. Correspondingly, the consumers of ivory products were not concerned with the environmental impacts.
Throughout the 20th century and even into today, elephant tusks have been developed into ivory to use as commodities. Ewart Grogan explains that he hunted elephants so that the ivory could be use for “art pieces,” ornamental items,” and “trophies.”2 Moreover, during the early 1900s, western nations used ivory for combs, brush handles, piano keys, and pool balls.5 An ivory frenzy began to fuel in the west as white, middle-class Americans began using ivory as a common commodity. By 1913, the U.S. was consuming 200 tons of ivory per year.5 The increasing demand for ivory products became correspondingly detrimental to the elephant population. In 1800, 26 million elephants roamed Africa; however, by 1913, that number had dropped to 10 million. Due to this high demand, hunters were continuing to kill elephants and export ivory out of Africa at severe rates, during the middle of the 20th century, mean annual export of ivory was at 700 tonnes, while 12-13% of elephants with tusks were being killed for the ivory trade annum.6 This is an example of capitalistic ideals becoming a driving force behind the Anthropocene; humans continuing to extract a resource in order to make the greatest profit, without any concern for what the ecological consequences will be. Elephants were being continuously hunted, in order to put an increasing amount of products into the economy. The more elephants that were poached, the larger the net profit for African hunters and western importers as the demand for ivory products in developed nations increased; thus, increasing the role of the ivory trade in the capitalistic economy.
The course and lasting impacts of the ivory trade mirror those of the whaling industry. The whaling industry was most prevalent in the 18th and 19th century; 235,000 whales were killed by whalers during the 19th century.7 Analogous to the ivory trade, whalers were killing mass amounts of whales in order to make commodities out of whale blubber and bone. The bones of the whales were used to make corsets for women back in Europe, while whale blubber and the spermicide from the head as oil for light and fuel.7 Whalers continued to hunt sperm whales across the oceans until the populations were almost depleted. The hunters had no regard for the ecological consequences, and the consumers were in Europe, so they were not witnessing the devastating process that was occurring at sea. Coincidentally, the western consumers have been fully detached from the environmental repercussions occurring in Africa, and the bloody killing of the beautiful animals. These factors create a system where elephants will be hunted to extinction, as sperm whales nearly were, in order for some to make a profit while they can.
Though the ivory trade has a long, appalling history, it is still present today. In the past year, 34.7 tons of ivory have been seized, which equates to 31,500 elephants being killed for their tusks in one year.1 The majority of contemporary poaching of elephants is to feed the demand for religious ivory commodities. Coincidentally, Vatican City is not subject to the current ivory ban, as ivory is used to make catholic crucifixes and are considered a holy commodity by the religious state.1 Other nations with strong ties to Catholicism also have large imports of illegal ivory. The Philippines is a nation where religious pieces made out of elephant ivory are a household item. Accordingly, between 2005 and 2007, smuggled ivory, equating 1,745 elephants were seized at Manila Airport in the Philippines.1 Although much of the world have found replacements for commodities that were once made out of ivory, religious pieces made out of ivory are still in high demand in parts of Europe and Asia. These nations are not using the ivory for practical purposes; ivory products are in demand merely for “value and art;” moreover, these consumers are “not at all thinking about the elephants.” 1 It is distressing for the ecosystem that elephant populations are still being hunted at high rates for their tusks. This is especially concerning when humans are able to realize that they are depleting wildlife communities, yet they are continuing to play a role in altering ecosystems.
It has been over 100 years since Ewart Scott Grogan was hunting African elephants on his traverse across the nation, yet elephant poaching is still a disturbing issue, as nations are demanding commodities produced from elephant ivory. The ivory trade is an alarming element in the Anthropocene, for this commodity represents the depletion of a whole species, which not only has consequences within elephant populations, but also has changed whole ecological dynamics. Fortunately, much of the world has rallied around preserving the African Elephant species. As of 1989, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) introduced a world wide ban on ivory imports.6 Though this has not completely halted elephant poaching, it shows that Global Unions are beginning to take steps to protect this majestic creature. No longer will hunters of the largest mammal on Earth be celebrated in the United States, as Theodore Roosevelt was in the early 20th century.
- Christy, Bryan. Ivory Worship. National Geographic, 2012. Accessed April 16, 2016.
- Grogan, Ewart Scott, and Henry Arthur. From the Cape to Cairo: The First Traverse of Africa from North to South. London: SHARP, 1909.
- Milner-Gulland, E. J. The Impact of the Ivory Trade on the African Elephant Loxodonta Africana Population as Assessed by Data from the Trade.:. 55th ed. Vol. 215. Biological Conservation. 1991.
- Roosevelt, Theodore. African Game Trails. New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1910.
- The History of the Ivory Trade. National Geographic, 2016.
- Threats to African Elephants. World Wildlife Fund, 2016. Accessed April 16, 2016.
- Hennessy, Elizabeth. “Whale Commodities.” Lecture, World Environmental History, Madison, March 31, 2016.