How Much Ivory Is in the Ivory Coast?

From a story by Brian Palmer posted in Slate Magazine (April 6).

A few thousand pounds, at most.

Months of armed conflict in the Ivory Coast may soon come to a close, as president Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to relinquish power after losing last fall’s presidential election, finally began negotiating with opposition forces surrounding his home. If everything goes well, the country’s main exports – petroleum, cocoa, coffee – will fund its recovery.

There are only two or three hundred elephants living in isolated herds in the country. There were at least 10 times that many in 1980, but habitat destruction and the wave of poaching that decimated elephant populations across Africa in the ensuing decade pushed them to the brink of extinction. The disappearing pachyderm is more of a moral and ecological problem than an economic one, though. Elephant hunting hasn’t accounted for more than a small fraction of the country’s economy in a century, and the 1989 ban on the international ivory trade didn’t have a noticeable impact on GDP.

Even so, the Ivory Coast continued to serve as a major hub for the illegal ivory trade until political instability undermined the market just a few years ago. There may not be so many elephants left in the country, and the market for ivory has been greatly diminished, but there are still plenty of contraband chopsticks, signature seals, and necklaces for sale. Tourists (especially from Asia) buy ivory trinkets carved by Ivoirian artisans, who have a reputation for being among the best at their trade. No one knows exactly where the artisans are getting their ivory. It may come from Tanzania and Zambia, the source of massive shipments handled by international crime syndicates. Or it might be that the Ivoirians are importing ivory from small-time poachers scattered all over the continent.

There is a reason the French called the region the Côte d’Ivoire when they set up shop in the region. There was no elephant census in the 1600s, but modern researchers estimate that the country hosted hundreds of thousands of pachyderms when Europeans began establishing settlements in West Africa.

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