Ivory has been desired since antiquity because its relative softness made it easy to carve into intricate decorative items for the very wealthy. For the past one hundred years, the ivory trade in Africa has been closely regulated, yet the trade continues to thrive.
Ivory Trade in Antiquity
During the days of the Roman Empire, the ivory exported from Africa largely came from North African elephants.
These elephants were also used in the Roman coliseum fights and occasionally as transport in war and were hunted to extinction around the 4th century C.E. After that point, the ivory trade in Africa declined for several centuries.
Medieval Times to the Renaissance
By the 800s, the trade in African ivory had picked-up again. In these years, traders transported ivory from West Africa along the trans-Saharan trade routes to the North African coast or brought East African ivory up in boats along the coast line to the market-cities of north-east Africa and the Middle East. From these depots, ivory was taken across the Mediterranean to Europe or to Central and East Asia, though the latter regions could easily acquire ivory from southeast Asian elephants.
European Traders and Explorers (1500-1800)
As Portuguese navigators began exploring the West African coast line in the 1400s, they soon entered into the lucrative ivory trade, and other European sailors were not far behind. During these years, ivory was still acquired almost exclusively by African hunters, and as the demand continued, the elephant population near the coast lines declined. In response, African hunters traveled further and further inland in search of elephant herds.
As the trade in ivory moved inland, the hunters and traders needed a way to tranport the ivory to the coast. In West Africa, trade focused on numerous rivers that emptied into the Atlantic, but in Central and East Africa, there were fewer rivers to use. Sleeping Sickness and other tropical diseases also made it almost impossible to use animals (like horses, oxen, or camels) to transport goods in West, Central, or central-East Africa, and this meant that people were the primary movers of goods.
The Ivory and Slave Trades (1700-1900)
The need for human porters meant that the growing slave and ivory trades went hand-in-hand, particularly in East and Central Africa.
In those regions, African and Arab slave traders traveled inland from the coast, purchased or hunted down large numbers of slaves and ivory, and then forced the slaves to carry the ivory as they marched down to the coast. Once they reached the coast, the traders sold both the slaves and the ivory for hefty profits.
The Colonial Era (1885-1960s)
In the 1800s and early 1900s, European ivory hunters began hunting elephants in greater numbers. As demand for ivory increased, elephant populations were decimated. In 1900, several African colonies passed game laws that limited hunting, though recreational hunting remained possible for those who could afford the expensive licenses.
At Independence in the 1960s, most African countries maintained or increased colonial game legislation laws, either outlawing hunting or permitting it only with the purchase of expensive licences. Poaching and the ivory trade continued though.
In 1990, African elephants, with the exception of those in Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, were added to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, which means that participating countries agreed not to allow their trade for commercial purposes. Between 1990 and 2000, the elephants in Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, were added to Appendix II, which permits trade in ivory but requires an export permit to do it.
Many argue, though, that any legitimate trade in ivory encourages poaching and adds a shield for it, since illegal ivory can be publicly displayed once purchased. It looks the same as legitimate ivory, for which their continues to be relatively high demand for both Asian medicine and decorative objects.