With Extinction Clock Ticking, White House Proposes New Elephant Protections

By Peter LaFontaine

There are millions of elephants in the United States, but you won’t find them roaming Yellowstone.

Instead, they spend their days gathering dust in silver cabinets, getting smacked by cues on pool tables, and hanging on walls as trophies from far-flung hunts.

We’re talking about ivory, of course, and about hides, hair, and the other elephant body parts that Americans have brought to these shores from Africa, like so many beetles scavenging a continent to the bone.

On July 25, the Obama administration took a crucial step toward protecting living elephants in the wild, but first we need to look back to understand how we got to this point.

For a time, the U.S. was the landing spot for most of the world’s ivory exports, with entire cities based around the manufacture and sale of billiard balls, piano keys, and hundreds of other products made from elephant tusks.

For all its popularity, ivory inevitably gave way to cheaper and better replacements; modern synthetic materials such as plastics were simply more functional.

But ivory never lost its decorative value, and tourists, retailers, and collectors continued to import statues and tusks long after the manufacturing economy had moved on.

Plummeting Numbers

By the time the American environmental movement had begun to gather strength, elephant populations in Africa were already at a historic ebb, and in 1978 the species was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Out of an estimated high of ten million at the turn of the 20th century, around 300,000 remained in 1990.

Not all of this was America’s doing, of course, but demand in the U.S. had helped drive the industrialization of elephant hunting, and a massive market remained for carvings and trophies.

Recognizing this bloody legacy, in 1988 Congress passed the African Elephant Conservation Act (which limited domestic ivory imports and exports, among —> Read More