Saving elephants from the ivory trade

Saving elephants is central to EIA’s work. We have a consistently successful track record that includes:

Herd of savannah elephants

Herd of savannah elephants

African elephants are at risk of extinction, primarily due to the poaching that feeds the ivory trade. The savannah elephants in East and Southern Africa, as well as the forest elephants of West and Central Africa, are both at serious risk, with numbers in sharp decline.

Combined with habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and the growing pressure of climate change, the ivory trade threatens the survival of these keystone species whose decline will, in turn, have a serious impact on the maintenance of healthy ecosystems, economies and the rule of law.

  • 2002-2013


    65% of African Forest Elephants poached
  • 2021


    Forest Elephant recognised as a separate species and declared Critically Endangered
  • 2022


    Forest Elephant population estimated as ca 133,300

Fourty years of tackling criminals and saving elephants

The criminals behind ivory smuggling out of Africa are ruthless profiteers who would rather line their own pockets than save the African elephant from extinction.

EIA tackles this cruel trade by carrying out pioneering undercover investigations, working with local NGOs around the world and keeping the pressure on national governments and international organisations.

We refuse to entertain the thought that the future might be one without elephants and continue to do everything in our power to save these magnificent animals.

The EIA has been at the forefront of saving elephants for more than four decades; we were instrumental in securing the international ban on ivory trade in the '80s and we’ve been fighting to keep it in place ever since.

Mary Rice, Executive Director and Head of Elephant Campaign, EIA

Why save African elephants?

The elephant is an intelligent, graceful and sensitive creature whose mysterious ways have fascinated observers for centuries. In the endless discussions about illegal ivory trading and the issues which surround it, the elephant is often left out, like some unnecessary appendage attached to the valuable ivory.

Although ivory has a material value, that value is 100 times greater in a live animal than its tusks alone will ever have.

Elephants are a living and breathing part of the African environment. As a keystone species, they play a crucial role in the health of the ecosystems which they inhabit and sustain for the benefit of many other species.

The role of elephants within the ecosystem consists of path making, tree felling, soil aeration and seed dispersal, as well as the opening up and maintenance of waterholes.

Consequently, the wellbeing of many other animals depends on elephants. Keystone species are believed to help maintain food webs. The removal of such a species may therefore have catastrophic consequences.

In Uganda’s Murchison Falls Park, it was found that all the important grazing grasses disappeared when elephants were excluded. Grazers such as wildebeest, Thompson’s gazelles and buffalo disappeared because they were deprived of their primary food source.

The environmental impact of the ivory trade

The depletion or extinction of African elephants due to the ivory trade also has a significant environmental impact. We know that the poor composition of the forests of the Central Congo Basin reflects the absence of rejuvenation owing to the extermination of elephants.

Elephants act as architects of the forest and savannah environments by opening up dense woodlands which allows the generation of plants on the forest floor. Such vegetation provides a food supply and hospitable environment for large herbivores such as forest buffalo, antelope, hogs, okapis, duikers, bongos, bush pigs and even gorillas, which in turn represent a potential food supply for large carnivores such as lions and cheetahs.

Forest Elephant

Forest elephant

Food passing through elephants also results in the transfer of nutrients, organic matter and seeds from elephant droppings into the soil.

Tree felling by elephants can lead to the release of nutrients and increased productivity in the ecosystem. Tree clearance in woodlands may also result in the opening up of springs and an increase in ground water, which may then become available to other plants and animals. Elephants also open up swamp pastures to other herbivores by trampling down tall sedges and promoting growth of high-quality grasses.

Numbers of savannah elephants plummet

Many scientists consider that the elephants found in Africa belong to two separate species: the savannah elephant and the forest elephant.

Savannah elephants

Savannah elephants

The savannah elephant is the world’s largest land mammal. Adult males can grow to a height of up to four metres and weigh between 2,000 and 6,100 kilograms.

This species mainly lives in the savannah, grassy plains and deserts of sub-Saharan Africa, with the highest concentrations found in Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa.

  • 2007-2014


    144,000 fewer Savanna Elephants alive
  • Since 2006


    Savanna Elephant population declined by 30% and decreasing
  • 2019


    Three of the largest ivory seizures ever made totalling over 25 tonnes.

In recent years, the population of African savannah elephants has undergone a dramatic decline. According to the Great Elephant Census published in 2016, there was a 30 per cent decline in the population of savannah elephants in 15 of the 18 African countries surveyed.

This was the first ever pan-African survey of savannah elephants. Disturbingly, high numbers of elephant carcasses were discovered in protected areas, suggesting that elephants are battling to survive, both inside and outside parks.

Traffickers target the African forest elephant

In recent years, the criminal syndicates behind ivory trafficking have shifted their attention from the savannah elephants of East and Southern Africa to the forest elephants of West and Central Africa.

In contrast to the cream-coloured ivory of savannah elephants, forest elephants’ tusks have a distinctive pink tinge. Tragically for the forest elephant, this ‘pink ivory’ is prized in the Japanese market, where it is often used for ‘hanko’ or name seals.

While many countries have closed their domestic ivory markets, the ivory trade in Japan continues to flourish, with traders exploiting loopholes to launder illegal ivory.

Forest elephants help maintain the rainforest

The loss of forest elephants to the ivory trade is not just a disaster for the species. It also has dramatic consequences for the environment.

Forest elephants play a crucial ecological role in maintaining the second largest rainforest in the world. Often called the ‘mega gardeners’ of the forest, they are the most efficient seed-dispersers in their habitats.

Every day, they consume vegetation that amounts to around four per cent of their body weight, in a diet that includes the bark, leaves and fruit of over 300 different plant species.

They eat the seeds of many precious and key hardwood tree species which rely on their journey through an elephant’s gut to start the germination process.

Put simply, the forest landscape of West and Central Africa would face a bleak future without elephants.

Marula seedlings germinating from elephant dung

Marula seedlings germinating from elephant dung

What’s more, their role as mega gardeners has an important knock-on effect on climate change and other wildlife species.

By helping to preserve the hardwood trees in the rainforest that are critical for the capture of carbon, forest elephants are our allies in mitigating global warming.

They also help to support a vital wildlife habitat for myriad other species, including critically endangered gorillas, pangolins and chimpanzees, as well as leopards, monkeys and okapi.

Elephants in Africa recognised as two distinct species

In March 2021, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has officially categorised elephants in Africa as two distinct species – both inching closer to extinction. In the latest revision of its ‘Red List’ of species at risk of extinction, the IUCN has made the unprecedented move of highlighting that both species are actually closer to extinction than previously assessed due to unrelenting pressures from poaching and habitat loss. Now, savannah elephants have been classified as “endangered” (facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild) and forest elephants as “critically endangered” (facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild).

This latest assessment demonstrates the importance and value of EIA’s continued work to gather and disseminate key intelligence to tackle the transnational organised criminals that feed the illegal ivory trade

Rachel Mackenna, EIA Deputy Campaign Lead

Disrupting criminal networks

Our approach to saving elephants involves disrupting the trans-national organised criminal groups that fuel much of the large-scale ivory trafficking from Africa to Asia.

We do this by investigating wildlife trafficking networks and the criminals that run them, who are often based far away in Vietnam, China and Singapore. We discover how they obtain the ivory from the poachers, how they move it out of the country and where they deliver it next. We then pass this information on to the relevant authorities so they can take action.

As the ivory moves along the trafficking route, it becomes increasingly valuable. The people who are ultimately in control don’t get their hands dirty in the field, but make huge amounts of money by the time the ivory reaches their country.

By disrupting the criminal kingpins in Asia, we disrupt the whole chain. The facilitators in Africa don’t get paid and crucial links are broken.

Our success so far proves that this approach can bring about long-term meaningful change in saving elephants and combatting elephant poaching.

A high-profit, low-risk crime

EIA investigations have given us unique insights into the way that wildlife traffickers think and work. We know that they perceive wildlife trafficking as a high-profit low-risk crime. The risks are low because there is insufficient effort to investigate these crimes and tackle corruption.

Nor are financial investigative tools employed to target the illicit profits derived from ivory trafficking and recover the proceeds of crime. We know that some members of a Chinese criminal network documented by EIA have ‘retired’ to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, having made millions of dollars from the ivory trade.

Vietnam leads new ivory trafficking operations

There has been a rapid proliferation of organised Vietnamese trafficking networks driving illegal wildlife trade globally. We have recently carried out ivory trafficking investigations that have produced several leads on ivory trafficking operations in West and Central Africa. EIA is now mapping out what we believe to be one of the largest ivory trafficking criminal networks led by an organised Vietnamese criminal group.

Fourty years of fighting for elephants

We’ve recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of the landmark international ban on the elephant ivory trade. Our report, ‘A System of Extinction: The African Elephant Disaster’, was instrumental in securing this ban that has been critical in saving elephants.

Since then, we’ve worked consistently to identify the trans-national criminal groups behind the trafficking of illegal ivory, expose corruption and shut down the ivory trade.

Due to our investigations, we have exposed organised ivory trafficking networks in China, Laos, Malaysia, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia that have been responsible for the large-scale destruction of elephant populations across Africa.

The ivory trade: our vital role in saving elephants since 1984

1989 EIA helps secure the international ban on the commercial trade in ivory.
1999 Legal sales of ivory to Japan undermine the international ban.
2008 A second legal sale of ivory takes place, this time to both China and Japan.
2002-2013 65 per cent of forest elephants in Central Africa are killed.
2017 EIA exposes the global hub of the illegal ivory trade in Shuidong, China.
2017 China imposes a trade ban on ivory.
2017-2019 Following our Shuidong investigation, two ivory trafficking syndicates in China are dismantled and many criminals are arrested and prosecuted.
2018 The UK decided to close its domestic ivory market.
2020 Exposing the significant role of West and Central Africa as a new global hub of the illegal ivory trade.
2021 The UNESCO World Heritage Committee gives Tanzania a pass for ruining the Selous World Heritage Site with huge dam.
2022 CITES adopts decision to review the National Ivory Action Plan process.

Our work to combat the ivory trade

EIA has been investigating ivory trafficking for over three decades, and we continue to keep up the pressure. Here are some of the key developments that have taken place during our ongoing fight to save elephants.

Landmark ban on the ivory trade (1989)

In 1989, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, announced an unprecedented international ban on the trade of ivory.

CITES is a multi-lateral treaty which governments sign up to voluntarily. It aims to ensure that the trade in wild animals, such as elephants, does not threaten their survival.

In this landmark decision, the global community came together to save elephants from illegal traffickers’ insatiable demand for ivory.

Our ground-breaking report, ‘A System of Extinction: The African Elephant Disaster’, played an important role in spurring action. Released on the eve of the 1989 CITES conference, it revealed the grim findings of our undercover investigations into the global ivory trade.

The report:

  • Scrutinised key markets in Asia
  • Identified rampant ivory poaching in Africa
  • Exposed some of the international criminals who masterminded the trade.

Working to close domestic ivory markets (2010-2012)

Although the CITES ban was successful, unfortunately two legal sales of ivory in 1999 and 2008 seriously undermined the international ban. This led to increased poaching and large amounts of ivory making its way to markets in Asia.

Investigations by EIA in Guangzhou, China, in November 2010 documented a thriving and growing illegal trade in ivory; we discovered that up to 90 per cent of the ivory available on the market was illegal.

We have worked long and hard to close domestic markets which provide a cover for the illegal ivory trade, a trade which is relentless and dynamic.

Mary Rice, Executive Director of EIA

In our 2012 ‘Blood Ivory’ report, we vigorously challenged the myth of a regulated market for ivory and called for China to be stripped of its Approved Buyer status in order to halt the rising tide of elephant poaching.

We also called on the UK and other governments that supported the sale of stockpiled ivory to China and Japan to accept responsibility for their decision and take proactive steps to reverse the harm these sales were doing to global elephant populations.

Exposing the global hub of the illegal ivory trade (2017)

In 2014, we published our ‘Vanishing Point’ report which was instrumental in exposing the decline of Tanzania’s elephants and galvanising enforcement action on the ground.

Following leads gathered in Tanzania, the EIA began investigating neighbouring Mozambique, a country whose elephant population had been devastated by poaching and the illegal ivory trade.

What we discovered was beyond anything we could have anticipated.

Our investigation in Mozambique revealed a Chinese-led criminal syndicate which, for over two decades, had been trafficking ivory from Africa to Shuidong, a small town in southern China.

We discovered that over 80 per cent of poached ivory from Africa was being trafficked through Shuidong

Over the course of more than a year, our investigators held discussions with ivory traffickers in and around Shuidong, using covert tactics to gather important intelligence and uncover the ivory smuggling routes both in and out of the town.

These investigations gave us unprecedented insight into the methods used to source, ship and sell raw tusks. They also shed light on some of the methods that criminal syndicates use to manage their profits from illegal ivory trafficking.

In July 2017, we published our report, ‘The Shuidong Connection’, which exposed the deep-rooted links between Shuidong and the global ivory trade, confirming China as the global centre of demand for elephant ivory and the world’s main destination for illegal ivory.

It also identified the three main culprits in the Shuidong ivory trafficking syndicate: named Wang, Xie and Ou.

Ivory trafficking syndicates dismantled (2017)

Before publishing ‘The Shuidong Connection’, we shared our findings with Chinese Customs authorities. They responded swiftly with a huge operation in Shuidong comprising about 500 enforcement officers and resulting in the arrest of 27 suspects, 16 of whom went on to face criminal charges.

As a result of this operation, the three main members of the Shuidong syndicate were arrested:

  • Wang was caught during the raid and subsequently jailed for 15 years.
  • Xie was located in Tanzania and voluntarily returned to face trial, at which he was jailed for six years.
  • Ou was repatriated from Nigeria to China in January 2019 under an INTERPOL Red Notice to face trial in China.

Action taken by the China Customs Anti-Smuggling Bureau based on EIA’s intelligence has now led to the dismantling of two ivory trafficking syndicates spanning Guangdong and Fujian provinces in southern China.

Commenting on China’s efforts to tackle illegal wildlife trade, Mary Rice, Executive Director of EIA, said:

“It is extremely encouraging to see the impact that intelligence-led enforcement can have in China when enforcement authorities pro-actively pursue international wildlife criminals and their networks.

“China is showing the way for others to follow in saving elephants; it is now a shining example of what can be done when the will and the resources are put to effective use and it should be commended for its efforts.”

We not only expose environmental crime and abuse, we also work with governments to raise awareness on wildlife crime and we provide training tools for law enforcement officers.

China imposes a trade ban on ivory (2018)

By consistently documenting the loopholes in China’s legal domestic ivory market and intensely campaigning for its closure, EIA played a critical role in securing China’s ivory trade ban.

At the end of 2018, China formally confirmed the full closure of its domestic ivory market in what is widely regarded as the single biggest step to end the slaughter of elephants.

In a statement, the Government’s State Forestry Administration declared:

From today, trading in ivory products in China is illegal.

  1. It is illegal for any market, shop or stall to trade in ivory or ivory products.
  2. Online trade in ivory products through online shops or social media groups is illegal.
  3. Bringing ivory souvenirs from overseas back into China is illegal (without CITES certification).

We believe this move has the potential to be a genuine game-changer in terms of ending the voracious consumer demand which has directly spurred a massive illegal trade in ivory, built on the annual slaughter of many thousands of elephants in Africa and elsewhere.

UK ivory ban becomes law (2018)

In December 2018, we and our nine campaign partners were delighted when the UK Government’s Ivory Bill became law, introducing one of the world’s toughest bans on ivory sales.

This success followed many years of sustained campaigning by the EIA, including leading 26 organisations to petition the UK Government to close its domestic ivory market.

The Act was passed with cross-party backing and overwhelming popular support, with more than 88 per cent of the 70,000 individuals and organisations responding to the Government public consultation in favour of a ban.

The EIA study showed the UK was the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory

In the lead up to the bill becoming law, our 2017 ivory trade study made some shocking discoveries. It showed that between 2010-15:

  • The UK exported 370 per cent more ivory items globally than the next highest exporter, the USA.
  • The UK occupied the top spot in the list of largest ivory exporters for each year except 2015, when it was second only to Italy.
  • UK ivory exports to Hong Kong and China increased dramatically over the period, while exports to the USA plummeted as the US Government introduced greater restrictions on the international and domestic ivory trade.

Exposing the new global hub of the illegal ivory trade (2020)

In 2020, we published our ‘Out of Africa’ report, which exposed how West and Central Africa have become the epicentre of ivory and pangolin scale trafficking to Asia over the past decade.

The sheer scale and volume of the wildlife trafficking indicates a regional issue, with severe decline of elephant and pangolin populations in Nigeria and neighbouring countries, and local extinction of certain elephant populations.

Our research led EIA to develop a new strand of work to strengthen the legislation, law enforcement and securing criminal justice in the region.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee gives Tanzania a pass for ruining the Selous World Heritage Site with huge dam (2021)

 EIA campaigned against the Selous-Rufiji hydropower project, an infrastructure project significantly impairing the integrity of the World Heritage Site of the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. We summarised our concerns in our ‘World Heritage Dammed’ report.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee let Tanzania off the hook, rejecting calls to remove the Selous from the list of World Heritage Sites due to the destruction caused by the dam.

Land conversion and the resulting habitat loss and fragmentation is an increasing threat to the survival of elephants in Asia and Africa alike. EIA continues to monitor and campaign for better safeguarding of key elephant sites threatened by unsustainable practices.

CITES adopts decision to review the National Ivory Action Plan process (2022)

The National Ivory Action Plan (NIAP) process is an important elephant conservation tool and framework developed under CITES in 2013 in response to the continuing elephant poaching crisis in Africa.

CITES Parties (countries) with high levels of elephant poaching and ivory trafficking are identified for consideration as part of the NIAP process by the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS). Once their participation has been confirmed by the

CITES Standing Committee (SC), Parties are requested to develop and implement robust timebound action plans to address their country-specific concerns, with the goal of achieving positive impacts on the ground.

There has been some noted progress and successes by Parties in the NIAP process to reduce poaching and trafficking. Despite this, several gaps in policy and practice continue to risk undermining the effectiveness of the NIAP process and risk progress in protecting elephants in the wild.

EIA together with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have engaged with the NIAP process since its inception. Through continuous research and advocating for increased transparency, accountability and efficiency, EIA and our partners played a pivotal role in pushing through the CITES Decision at CoP19 in Panama, 2022, to review the NIAP for improvement.


Saving elephants is an ongoing battle

The UK ivory ban, however, is yet to come into force. In March 2019, a group of antique dealers and collectors, the Friends of Antique Cultural Treasures Ltd (FACT), sued the UK Government, challenging the legality of the Act.

Lawyers for the Government argued that all legal ivory markets, whether they are in the UK or abroad, now or in the future, pose a risk to elephants as they provide opportunities for laundering illegal ivory and sustain the commercial value and desirability of ivory. Thus, directly or indirectly, the UK ivory market exacerbates the risk faced by elephants in Africa and Asia.

FACT has received permission to appeal and this was heard at the Supreme Court in front of three judges in February 2020.

EIA is providing information, guidance and support to DEFRA and has been beating the drum in the lead up to the appeal to raise awareness of the need to save elephants and to ensure that our voices are heard in the corridors of power.

Why saving elephants remains a priority

 Elephants are like us, only better: loyal, full of wisdom, compassion and majesty.

If we cannot secure a future for the biggest terrestrial land mammal, how on earth will we ensure a future for the myriad other creatures which are equally important to a healthy landscape and our own well-being?

Mary Rice, Executive Director of EIA

How you can help save elephants from extinction

Over 20,000 elephants are still being poached each year – significantly more than are being born. To save African elephants from extinction, we must act now.

On average, poachers kill an African elephant every 15 minutes

Please donate today to support our vital work so we can continue to investigate, expose and stop wildlife and environmental crimes around the world. Your gift will make a valuable difference in saving elephants and supporting our ongoing fight against environmental and wildlife crime.

Every day, criminals are adapting their methods to evade prosecution while they facilitate the mass slaughter of elephants. Please support our work to save elephants and other endangered wildlife. We need your help – before it’s too late.