Ivory trade

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The ivory trade is the commercial, often illegal trade in the ivory tusks of the hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal, mammoth, and most commonly, Asian and African elephants. Ivory has been traded for hundreds of years by people in such regions as Greenland, Alaska, and Siberia. The China trading or trade, in more recent times, has led to endangerment of species, resulting in restrictions and bans.

Elephant ivory has been exported from Africa and Asia for centuries with records going back to the 14th century BC. Throughout the colonisation of Africa ivory was removed, often using slaves to carry the tusks, to be used for piano keys, billiard balls and other expressions of exotic wealth.

Ivory hunters were responsible for wiping out elephants in North Africa perhaps about 1,000 years ago, in much of South Africa in the 19th century and most of West Africa by the end of the 20th century. At the peak of the ivory trade, pre 20th century, during the colonisation of Africa, around 800 to 1,000 tonnes of ivory was sent to Europe alone. World wars and the subsequent economic depressions caused a lull in this luxury commodity, but increased prosperity in the early 1970s saw a resurgence. Japan, relieved from its exchange restrictions imposed after World War II, started to buy up raw (unworked) ivory.

This started to put pressure on the forest elephants of Africa and Asia, both of which were used to supply the hard ivory preferred by the Japanese for the production of hankos, or name seals. Prior to this period, most name seals had been made from wood with an ivory tip, carved with the signature. But increased prosperity saw the formerly unseen solid ivory hankos in mass production. Softer ivory from East Africa and southern Africa was traded for souvenirs, jewellery and trinkets. By the 1980s, Japan consumed about 40% of the global trade; another 40% was consumed by Europe and North America, often worked in Hong Kong, which was the largest trade hub, with most of the rest remaining in Africa. China, yet to become the economic force of today, consumed small amounts of ivory to keep its skilled carvers in business.



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