For a Defender of Elephants, China’s Ivory Ban Comes Just in Time

Iain Douglas-Hamilton has devoted his life to protecting Africa’s elephants, which have been decimated by poaching. In a Yale e360 interview, he explains why a recent Chinese ban on the ivory trade may be a turning point in the fight to save the animals.

As a boy in England in the 1940s, Iain Douglas-Hamilton dreamed of flying across the African bush helping to save the continent’s wildlife. Douglas-Hamilton grew up to do just that, working as a zoologist in Africa for more than 50 years to study and protect elephants. In the mid-1960s, he recalls, “Never in our wildest dreams did we think that men with automatic weapons would come one day and start shooting elephants … [But] I switched careers from somebody who was studying elephant lives to someone who was studying their deaths and getting that news out to the world.”

Iain Douglas-Hamilton

Iain Douglas-Hamilton

Douglas-Hamilton, who founded the conservation group Save the Elephants in 1993, has for decades been combating wave after wave of elephant poaching. The most recent — and most devastating — was the result of unfettered demand from China. But after so many years of grim news, with the continent’s elephant populations falling from an estimated 3 to 5 million to roughly 500,000, Douglas-Hamilton is encouraged by China’s announcement in December that it will end its domestic ivory trade in 2017.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Douglas-Hamilton, 74, reflects on his life’s work on behalf of Africa’s elephants, talks about the impacts of China’s ivory ban and the threats still facing the animals today, and discusses the campaign he and others waged to persuade the Chinese government to impose the ban. “I have seldom found people who are heartless or don’t give a damn,” says Douglas-Hamilton. “Any rational and informed person with a heart would not want to be the cause of exterminating a species.”

Yale Environment 360: Your own daughter has referred to you as “grandfather elephant.” How did your fascination with these animals come about, and who inspired you to work with them?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: As a small child, I dreamed of living in Africa, flying a small plane and saving animals, so I haven’t changed much. As an adult, I became a zoologist and my very first job in the wild was to work with elephants. Many people have inspired me, but mostly it was the elephants that inspired me. I wanted to imitate people who studied animals and knew them individually, like Jane Goodall with her chimpanzees, George Schaller with gorillas, and John Goddard, who lived in Ngorongoro [Tanzania] and knew all the rhinos by name. We’re talking about the mid ’60s — nobody had lived with wildlife in Africa and looked at them as individuals yet. I was incredibly lucky to have had the chance to be the first person to do that with elephants. I love the smell of elephants, I love hearing their noises, just having them around me. I love watching their play and I feel happy around them. I feel hugely at peace.

e360: You started out studying elephant behavior in Tanzania?

Douglas-Hamilton: That’s right. I’ve been studying them since 1965 when I worked in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania. I was very fortunate to be able to get to know the elephants individually for over four years in an idyllic national park. It was a time when Africa’s game reserves were newly formed. Never in our wildest dreams did we think that men with automatic weapons would come one day and start shooting elephants. But when my work at Manyara was finished, that idyllic world was coming to an end, because we were at the beginning of the first big ivory crisis, which started around 1969. The price of ivory increased tenfold within three years.

When I started a pan-African elephant survey in the mid 1970s, nobody knew anything about the continental status of elephants. The big question then was could elephants sustain the level of killing due to the ivory trade? Well, they couldn’t. We were losing more elephants than were being born. I switched careers basically from somebody who was studying elephant lives to someone who was studying their deaths, and recording them and getting that news out to the world.

e360: Estimates are that the elephant population was cut from 1.3 million individuals in 1979 to less than half, or around 600,000 elephants, by 1989. What was driving the demand for ivory at that time?

Douglas-Hamilton: It was driven by the market for ivory in the West — Belgium was a hot center for the trade, and also in Japan, whose new affluence meant that ordinary Japanese people could afford to buy ivory, which was in demand for prestige objects like hand seals. Two decades followed of escalating killing of elephants for ivory. It didn’t come to an end until the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) ban on the ivory trade took effect in 1989, which made all international sales illegal. At that time, there were lots of gloomy prognosticators who said that the ban will fail, it will only make ivory rarer and send the price up. In fact, the opposite took place. When the ban came in, the price for ivory collapsed.

e360: What was the impact of that on Africa?

Douglas-Hamilton: Initially, it was quite positive. Most of the illegal killing of elephants on the savannah ground to a halt, although it continued to a degree in forest areas of western Africa, where there was less law and order. Then certain countries in southern Africa lobbied to relax the ban. These nations had a tradition of culling and wanted to conduct occasional partial sales of ivory to help fund conservation efforts. Actually, there has been a significant debate up until this day between people who want total bans and those, mostly in southern Africa, who want to allow controlled sales. Controlled sales were approved by CITES, first in 2002, and then again in 2008.

“We estimated that 100,000 elephants had been killed between 2010 and 2012 for their ivory.”

The sale in 2008 had a devastating effect, because now we had a new player in the field, namely China. Ironically, China had originally opposed the ivory trade and opposed partial sales, saying that they would only confuse people, which indeed they do. But by 2008, their views had changed. The Chinese government came to actually encourage the ivory trade and tried to boost its domestic ivory-carving industry. The 2008 sale greatly stimulated the market for ivory in China and led to disastrous poaching.

e360:  China is by far the largest market — some estimates say that up to 80 percent of all illicit ivory passes through China. How did the Chinese government justify this?

Douglas-Hamilton: At first, they totally resisted the idea that demand in China was stimulating new poaching. Their reaction was, “Yes, this is terrible, it’s a problem, but it is caused by criminality in Africa and there is not much we can do about it.” But from 2009 until today, we have been in a crisis. We took all the best available counts and came up with an estimate that 100,000 elephants had been killed between 2010 and 2012 for their ivory. Even here in Kenya in those years, we could not stem the killing. It was driven by the very high demand from China.

e360: Your group, Save The Elephants, has been working with celebrities from China to help get the word out about the impact of the ivory trade on elephants. It is said that many Chinese did not even know that elephants were being killed for their ivory.

Douglas-Hamilton: Yes, I think it is true. A lot of Chinese people thought that ivory either came from old elephants that died naturally, or that the tusks were shed like a deer’s antlers. So we invited the Chinese news agency Xinhua, and people like the basketball star Yao Ming and the actress Li Bingbing, to our camp in Samburu [Kenya] to see the ordinary activities of elephants and also to see their mutilated corpses, with their faces chopped off to remove the ivory. There was such strong emotional reaction from our Chinese visitors. They said, “This is terrible what is happening, we have to share it with people back in China.” They understood very well the demand that was driving this killing, and through them that narrative got back to China in a big way. It contributed to the growing awareness amongst educated Chinese people that buying ivory is a terrible thing to do. It was only giving China a bad reputation. It wasn’t doing anything positive for the economy.

e360: You also worked with the Chinese government, I understand.

Douglas-Hamilton: I felt it was a matter of sharing awareness, not preaching or pressuring them, but simply letting them know what was going on. We got amazing concessions. The government allowed us to put public service announcements about the problem on TV free of charge. It was not a politically sensitive subject in China. It was not something that was criticizing the government. It was something that could be freely talked about.

e360: There have been signs for a while now that Chinese policy was beginning to shift. Then in September 2015 the leaders of China and the U.S. made a joint pledge to end their respective country’s ivory trade. What has been the impact of that?

“The announcement by China to close all ivory trade was what we had dreamed of, but never thought would really happen.”

Douglas-Hamilton: Chinese policy on elephants and ivory has changed radically. The announcement by Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Obama in 2016 to close all ivory trade was what we dreamed of, but never thought would really happen. The impact is already being felt. Two years ago, ivory was at the astronomical level of $2,000 a kilogram. By December 2015, the price for ivory had halved. It has gone down even further since. So now that the [Chinese] president is saying it is going to be illegal, that is liable to put a big damper on speculation. In the field, the price paid to poachers for ivory has also radically dropped.

e360: Will the ban succeed?

Douglas-Hamilton: I am taking the statements that are coming out of China at face value, that they are ending their internal ivory trade for the right reasons. Any rational and informed person with a heart would not want to be the cause of exterminating a species. Why should the Chinese be different? It does not mean that the ivory trade ends overnight. But I believe that this is a critical step to end excessive killing of elephants for ivory.

e360: One danger is that, as the screws on the ivory trade tighten in China, it will just migrate elsewhere. Is that a concern?

Douglas-Hamilton: Now that ivory is illegal in China, some of the trade is crossing the border by the setting up of enclaves in Vietnam and Laos, where there is barely any control at all. There are many very enterprising people in Asia who are skilled at creating demand for wildlife products where there was none before. We know there is still demand for these products in China as tourists cross the border to neighboring countries and continue to buy ivory and smuggle it back into the country. 

So the enforcement of this new policy is going to be very important. And I think we’ll need public opinion in China behind it all the way. We plan to continue our public awareness efforts there. I find the people I have met very easily moved when they learn of the plight of elephants. I have seldom found people who are heartless or don’t give a damn. 

e360: Meanwhile in Africa, elephants continue to be under threat. What places are you most worried about?

Douglas-Hamilton: Elephants are just hanging on by the skin of their teeth in West Africa, where there are increasingly fragmented populations in small enclaves, and if you put on top of that the ivory demand, it is enough to finish elephant populations off. In Central Africa, we’ve seen huge reductions in forest elephants in the past 20, 30 years. They have been reduced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from hundreds of thousands to a few thousand today. Fully 60 percent of the remaining forest elephants are in one country, Gabon, which is a frontline state now where they have large national parks, but very little wherewithal to control them. In the southern parts of Tanzania, where there used to be huge populations in the Selous and Ruaha, they’ve suffered devastating losses. In Mozambique, which is just across the border, the killing is going on as we speak.

If the demand for ivory were to remain, the risk would be that the poaching would shift from central and eastern Africa to southern Africa, to countries like Botswana that has huge elephant reserves. But all of these countries are under threat. Numbers alone are no protection, as we know from the example of the American bison and the passenger pigeon.

e360: Even assuming that China’s ban will relieve poaching pressure on elephants, there is still the problem of conflict between humans and elephants. What is to be done about that?

Douglas-Hamilton: Human-elephant conflict is a huge ongoing problem, which can only get worse as more and more elephant range is encroached on by expanding human populations. When the ivory problem is no longer there, this is the problem we have been grappling with all along and where our efforts need to go in the future. Finding solutions based on evidence and proper planning can allow elephants and human beings to coexist. That is our main work in Kenya. We’ve got a big project with The Nature Conservancy where we are monitoring the elephants with very high-tech tracking devices and trying to learn all about their concentration areas and corridors, and seasonal movements in relation to human needs of the nomadic people who live there. Instead of having unplanned development we need to plan out what works for both people and animals. We don’t need to build settlements and infrastructure that cuts wildlife corridors in two. It is perfectly possible to plan with the government so that this doesn’t happen.

e360: What are your hopes for the future?

Douglas-Hamilton: My hope is to secure a future for elephants in perpetuity, and I think it’s a challenge because we haven’t calmed down as a species, our numbers are increasing, and our demands on the environment are increasing. We want more of everything — more roads, more space, we want to carve up more forests, so there’s a big threat and a big challenge. My dream would be for human beings to come into balance with their environment, to stop destroying nature.