Ivory trade eradicated elephants from eastern Africa

(Credit: Ashley Coutu)

Archaeologists have conducted pioneering analysis on historic ivory, revealing where East African elephants roamed and where they were hunted in the 19th century.

Eastern Africa has been a major source of elephant ivory for millennia, with a sharp increase in trade witnessed during the 19th century fueled by escalating demand from Europe and North America.

Desirable objects such as cutlery-handles, piano keys, and billiard balls drove the extension of global trade networks and the industrialization of the ivory-working industry. However, little was previously known about exactly where the hunted elephants came from and what were the trade-routes of primary suppliers at the time.

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Isotope analysis on historic East African ivory and skeletal remains provided information about diet and therefore elephants’ likely habitat, which allowed scientists to figure out where ivory originally came from and to map elephant geography in the region.

Ivory samples traded after 1890 matched elephants living in forested interior regions of East Africa.

The findings, published in PLOS ONE,  support previous evidence suggesting that an increase in hunting resulted in the eradication of elephants from along the coast of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania by the mid-19th century, driving trade inland.

“Our results shed light on the significant historic ecological and socio-economic impact of the ivory trade, in addition to informing contemporary elephant conservation strategies,” says lead researcher Ashley Coutu, a fellow in the archaeology department at the University of York and the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

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“Today, elephants live in national parks and game reserves in these same landscapes, but are more restricted in terms of their movement than they would have been in the 19th century. Our database provides information on the historical ecology of these animals before there were regulations on their protection.

“By understanding elephant movement in the past, our research could potentially provide data to improve wildlife corridors for the movement of elephants between national parks and game reserves, which can often cause human-elephant conflict in these regions.”

“Our findings help us to understand the interactions between humans and elephants during a time when there was an exponential demand for ivory from this region of Africa,” says coauthor Matthew Collins, professor of archaeology and founder of BioArCh.

“Isotope and DNA analysis is often used to track the source of illegal ivory today. Our database of isotope values for both modern and historic East African elephants will add to the body of growing data to help us understand and track elephant populations on the African continent.”

Source: University of York