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Ivory Trade in Africa

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.

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.

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.

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

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