Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=114363
Story Retrieval Date: 5/18/2013 9:24:06 AM CST
The global ivory trade is a long-standing contentious subject. In early history, the relationship between humans, elephants and ivory was sustainable. But growth in ivory business led to nearly immeasurable declines in elephants. And wildlife advocates continue to struggle with conservation strategies. In his new book, “Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants,” John Frederick Walker outlines the history of and possible future for African elephants and the ivory trade. On his current book tour, which this month stops at the Field Museum and Northwestern University, Walker aims to spark a global conversation on the subject.
What led you to study the African elephant?
I’ve been fascinated by Africa ever since I was a child. But it wasn’t until I had a chance to go to Africa to see these animals for myself that I became quite interested in conservation issues. I understood that when you look at, say, television documentaries on African wildlife, you’re looking at a very narrow view of what is happening over there. If you pull back, so to speak, you see a much wider surround that includes the people living with these animals, the political context and the conservation context. So, you might say my fascination is not just with the animals, it’s with the conservation issues and the interaction between people and animals and the competing visions of nature.
Can you explain why the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the international body that imposed a ban on ivory sales in 1989, recently approved a controlled sale of ivory stockpiles?
One of the things that I think surprises people is that you don’t have to kill elephants to get their ivory. If you want to harvest ivory, you simply wait for the elephant to die. Those tusks – which are incisor teeth if you can believe that – can grow up to 7 inches a year. If you wait until the elephant dies of old age, you can get tremendous ivory from them.
Cash-strapped African countries do not feel that they should be destroying this “white gold.” If they can raise money for conservation by selling this legitimate ivory in a highly-controlled fashion, they don’t see why they shouldn’t.
What exactly is one tusk worth?
Ivory, in recent (legitimate) sales sold for about $75 (U.S.) per pound, much much less than the price on the black market. That fulfilled (the organization’s) goal of offering a legitimate source of ivory to approved buyers in Japan and China and allowed them to undercut the black market. One large tusk, say 60 pounds, is essentially a complete solid cylinder of ivory; virtually all of it is usable. Sections of it would be used for, say standing figurines, and (smaller) parts can be carved into everything from piano key veneers to Japanese name seals, (and the) bits can be used for toothpicks. Even the ivory dust could be ground up, burned and used to make black ink – it’s too valuable to waste.
In your book, you describe the struggle to protect and control African elephant populations. Can you explain the argument for culling – organized killing of animals within a burgeoning population?
Culling is a specific subtopic in a larger issue, which is that elephants are not being persecuted all over Africa. They are being poached in countries where there is tremendous civil conflict going on, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo where 5 million people have died since 1988 in what appears to be never-ending warfare. Elephants that are poached for their ivory in the Congo are the collateral damage of this huge humanitarian tragedy.
That being said, those decreases (in elephant populations) are being offset by the impressive increases in southern African countries such as Namibia, Botswana (and) Zimbabwe. These well-managed populations are increasing beyond the caring capacity of the habitat. So, reluctantly, park officials have decided we can’t take culling off the list of management tools to keep (elephant populations) under control.
One view of the ivory trade suggests, if you sell the stockpiles, countries and buyers get used to the cash flow and product availability. What happens when the stockpiles dry up? Will it encourage poaching?
Some people say demand for ivory in general shouldn’t be encouraged and therefore these legitimate sales encourage the appetite for ivory. But the problem is the appetite for ivory is not going to disappear. There’s just too much evidence of how ingrained ivory use is in so many cultures, and if there’s only a black market, then (that’s how) it will be supplied.
I just know that if we don’t do something different with ivory policy globally, we will have another 20 years of ivory poaching and hand-wringing over the results.
You describe some animal advocacy groups in the book as “distinctly less sympathetic to development and poverty concerns” in Africa in part because they don’t support ivory sales. Why is this?
Africans complain that, to satisfy the most extreme conservation agendas of North American and European countries, they would have to remain in a state of picturesque underdevelopment and essentially put all their resources toward preserving their wildlife heritage so that rich non-Africans can come and take pictures of the animals.
(But others) believe that they have a right to develop and take care of their people in (the same) ways that countries around the world do. They understand and value their wildlife but they don’t feel that wildlife comes before people – it’s the opposite. You have to strike a balance between social development in these countries and preserving their wildlife heritage.
Anything else you would like to add?
What I would like people really to know is that there are difficult choices ahead with elephant conservation and ivory policy. Those answers that we come up with are not going to be able to be summed up in bumper sticker-size slogans; they’re going to be complex decisions that have to be policies that work both for Africans and elephants on a country-by-country, case-by-case basis.
I think the goal is (for elephants to) endure in the wild in Africa forever. To do that, we have to take our feelings for elephants and make sure they are tempered by the realities that elephants face in a world that has ever-shrinking habitat.
Walker will appear at the Field Museum on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Northwestern University on Feb. 16 at 4 p.m.