On September 13, 2013, Yao Ming returned to Africa, nearly one year after his first visit. He visited Kenya and the animals he works to protect. This is the diary of his journey.
After witnessing how illegal ivory was obtained, I really was speechless. After seeing these animals up close and watching them interact in loving and protective family groups, it was heart wrenching and deeply depressing to see them cruelly taken before their time.
People have spent their lives studying and living intimately with these animals and now, just like in 1989 before the international ivory trade was banned, they must spend their lives looking for bodies, using metal detectors to find bullets and conducting autopsies.
Unfortunately, I saw five poached elephants in close proximity to each other while in Kenya — an indication of the seriousness of the poaching crisis.
I’m told that until 1989, the international trade in ivory was legal. But in addition to legal ivory from natural deaths, huge amounts of illegal ivory were laundered into the trade despite years of attempted regulation. This “regulated” trade led to the halving of elephant numbers from 1.2 million to around 600,000 in two decades. West, Central and East Africa were hardest hit, while Southern African populations remained stable and even increased.
In 1989, the international community banned the trade. The price of ivory fell to a quarter of its previous levels as markets in the US, Europe and much of the world, collapsed. For a number of years, elephant numbers stabilized and poaching declined. Some South African countries pushed for re-opening ivory trade for their stockpiles, but each time this was done, poaching increased again on speculation of a renewed market.
Theoretically, we could have a market in ivory supplied from elephants that die naturally. But unfortunately, with the high amount of money at stake, few will wait for the elephant to die to make a profit. There are too many people with access to weapons to do the killing here and too many people ready to buy the ivory without questioning how it was obtained.
I also learned that at one point in history, the United States was the largest consumer of ivory. As of 1989, Japan and Hong Kong were the largest importers of ivory, with Hong Kong holding 127 tonnes in its stockpile.
But China’s economic boom has lead to greater buying power with few potential consumers exposed to the publicity surrounding the 1989 ban. This is why we really need to document what’s happening here in Africa, on the ground. I firmly believe that Chinese consumers will have a change of heart once we understand the consequences, but it hasn’t been covered widely enough in the media.
Unlike rhino horn (which was banned in 1993 in China), ivory is still legally available and side-by-side with illegal ivory from poached elephants, which I think is very confusing for people. If you see something openly on sale, you assume it is legal. An ivory carving is thousands of miles removed from the sad carcass of a poached elephant, but we need to make that connection.
It was a harrowing experience I never want to repeat, but something that everyone thinking of buying ivory should see — the wastefulness of these animals cruelly slaughtered just so a small part of them could be used.
Would anyone buy ivory if they had witnessed this?