Long before gold and gemstones, humans were drawn to ivory. Europeans and Americans were especially found of the material, considered the plastic of its age. It was used to make everyday objects from combs to piano keys. By the 1980s, elephant poaching reached record levels in East Africa, provoking a worldwide outcry that led to an ivory trade ban still in effect.
But that’s not the end of the story. The ivory trade still resonates today. Journalist and conservationist John Frederick Walker discusses the past and future of the ivory trade in his new book, “Ivory Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants.” He will be speaking at the Harvard Museum of Natural History this Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 2:00 pm.
What kinds of issues does the ivory trade continue to raise? Science Metropolis editor Joseph Caputo asked Walker about his research.
Q: Why are elephants still being killed for their tusks? Who’s buying it?
The ivory ban only governs international trade in ivory. It doesn’t have anything to do with the internal buying, selling, possessing, collecting of ivory within each country. In North America and Europe, there are vast amounts of worked ivory, that is ivory that’s been carved into something. The issue that is disturbing is that some of it might be masquerading as ivory that is pre-ban when actually it’s poached ivory being snuck into the country.
Q: What role does the online auction-site eBay play in the modern ivory story?
EBay, under pressure from animal advocacy groups, decided that the possibility that there might be some objects being sold on eBay coming from poached ivory was enough to convince them to shut down all ivory sales. I’m not so sure that’s going to help reduce poaching or the flow of illegal ivory. It was a very well organized and central site and that it probably could have been monitored for that kind of illegal activity.
Q: Why would officials at Kruger National Park in South Africa need to thin their elephant herds?
That disturbs a lot of people but they’re so used to thinking of elephants being persecuted in most parts of Africa. They don’t understand that in the southern tier of Africa, those countries have been very successful with their elephant conservation. They’ve had such success that they have too many elephants for the habitat that’s available.
In Kruger National Park, which is the size of New Jersey, has a population of over 12,000 elephants. The habitat there can only support about 8,000 unless you’re willing to let the park’s biodiversity deteriorate. Elephants can literally transform their landscape into a desert. They are slowly eating up the park and having a huge impact on the vegetation.
After much outcry and discussion, park officials have decided they cannot take culling off the list of possible management techniques. They will use it as a last resort if there’s no other way to bring their numbers under control. But, it’s almost certain that they’re going to have to do that.
Q. Is there a possible end for the ivory trade?
I do not believe the ivory trade will ever end because as long as there are elephants there’s going to be ivory. You don’t have to kill elephants to get their ivory, you just have to wait for them to die. Their tusks are routinely stockpiled in the warehouses of African parks and reserves. Given its status as a desirable material in human history, many people around the world can’t understand why there’s anything wrong with the ivory that comes from elephants that die of natural causes.
For more talks covering history, culture and science, visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History Website.