A Brief Look at the History of the Ivory Trade

How illegal ivory trade decimated Africa’s elephant population

illegal trade of elephant's ivory tusks


In the 1400s, Portuguese navigators started exploring the West African coastline and soon entered the profitable ivory trade. They were followed by other European sailors, explorers, and travelers. After discovering ivory, the traders became hunters. But as the demand escalated, the population of elephants close to the coastlines declined.

In response, the hunters moved inland in search of elephant herds. They needed the means to bring the heavy ivory to the coast; however, their horses, donkeys, and cattle were affected by “sleeping sickness.” Thus, humans became the primary porters, and illegal ivory trade thrived with human slaves, especially in Central and East Africa.

19th–20th century

During the colonial era (19th century), when the European empires extended across Africa, increased ivory demand triggered a rise in the numbers of elephants being hunted. As a result, their population dropped by 50 percent to roughly ten million within a century.

In the United States and Europe, the demand for ivory was high. From cutlery handles, stylish doorknobs, combs, pool table balls and billiard balls, buttons, bagpipes, piano keys, and an extensive range of ornamental items—a wide variety of items made from elephant tusks were in high demand.

Ivory trade in Africa thrived due to this growing demand from the West. As a result, Africa’s elephant population came down to 1.3 million (from 26 million when the European explorers and traders first arrived) at the start of the 20th century.

As several African countries gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s, tougher colonial game legislation laws were enacted that declared hunting illegal or permitted it only when expensive licenses were bought. But this didn’t stop poaching and the illegal ivory trade in Africa.

Finally, in 1990, all commercial ivory trade was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. However, in 1998, it lifted the ban on sales of stockpiled ivory under pressure from African leaders, whose citizens were facing some tough conditions triggered by drought and poverty.

How threatened do you feel African elephants are due to the illegal ivory trade? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. Connect with the community on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads. Make sure to check my website at www.tamboelephant.com to buy my book that brings to life the amazing journey of young Tambo the elephant.



Thompsell, Angela. 2017. “Ivory Trade in Africa.” ThoughtCo, March 08, 2017. Accessed April 20, 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/ivory-trade-in-africa-43350.

Save Me Trust. 2018. “The Bloody History of the Ivory Trade.” Accessed April 20, 2018. http://www.save-me.org.uk/one-must-go-the-ivory-trade-or-the-elephant-its-our-choice/the-bloody-history-of-the-ivory-trade.


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