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Ivory's Ghosts

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Ivory's Ghosts

Link to this post 30 Dec 08

Kent Author Chronicles Plight of the African Elephant

By: Kathryn Boughton 12/30/2008

The "elephant in the living room" when it comes to ivory trafficking is not poaching, but rather the need for conservation. That is the conclusion that Kent author and artist John Frederick Walker draws in his new book, "Ivory's Ghosts," which will be officially released Jan. 13.

Mr. Walker, a veteran journalist who has written about Africa since 1986 for such publications as The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler and Wildlife Conservation, is also the author of "A Certain Curve of Horn," his 2002 account of his search for the endangered giant sable antelope in southern Africa.
He returned to Africa to further pursue his interest in conservation through an examination of the ivory trade. "After 'A Certain Curve of Horn' was published, I still had the Africa bug," he related. "I am fascinated with conservation issues, and while working on 'Curve' I encountered a lot of elephant people. I found that elephants are being poached nearly 20 years after the ban on cross-border trade in ivory. I wondered why and decided to look into the role of ivory in shaping human and animal history. I did five years of research, visiting museums and interviewing elephant scientists from South Africa to Kenya."

Some of this poaching has to do with the breakdown in human cultures, occasioned particularly by the independence movements in various African countries. "There was a lot of leftover weaponry that impacted elephants," he said. The use of AK-47s soon boosted poaching to its highest levels ever and threatened the very existence of the African elephant.

This rampant slaughter provoked a ban on cross-border trade in ivory and UN-administered CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) succeeded in slowing poaching of elephants in Africa. Today there are about a half million wild elephants in Africa, as compared to fewer than 50,000 elephants in Asia, where the ivory trade is being re-instituted. In Asian populations, only the males have tusks and this has led to a lopsided harvest of the animals, leaving many females without offspring and the surviving males too young to breed. Combined with fragmentation of their habitat, this situation could lead to the imminent extinction of Asian elephants.

"No one wants to have happen to African elephants what has happened to Asian elephants," said Mr. Walker, "but one of the really deep ironies of elephant conservation is that there is a lot of poaching where there is war. Five million people were killed in the war in the Congo. As a result of that war, there has been a breakdown of civil order and total lack of enforcement of poaching laws.

"At the same time, in the southern tier, the [Congolese] poaching is balanced by a growth in the elephant population. They have minimal poaching and the elephant population boom is too much for the habitat. South Africa is struggling with what to do with the elephants in its parks. For someone like me, who cares about elephants, it is hard to come face to face with the ironies of elephant conservation. Park officers are now deciding to shoot some elephants. After years of debate about what to do-including such things as trying birth control-they couldn't eliminate it as an option."

He said even transporting elephants to different locations is not a real option because it costs $8,000 to $10,000 to sedate, capture and transport a single elephant.

There is a strong need to control the southern herds, he reported, because elephants have a heavy effect on natural landscapes, eating 400 to 500 pounds of vegetation each day. In areas where national parks come in contact with human development, elephants do enormous harm to farmers, consuming entire crops in one night. "Managing elephants is difficult and expensive-they do what they want and go where they want," Mr. Walker said.

Occasionally a farmer is killed while trying to drive off the animals, and the family is compensated at a rate equivalent to a few hundred American dollars. "That is all they get and they have lost their main breadwinner," he observed.

While he avoids trying to propose too many solutions to the problems of elephant conservation in his book, he speculates that a tightly controlled market for legally obtained ivory might reduce the profitability of poaching. At the same time, allowing African countries to realize income from the sales would offset the high costs of herd maintenance. He said that legal ivory could be obtained both from animals culled for population control and from naturally deceased members of herds.

"Ivory is the gift left behind when an elephant dies," he said. "The parks and wildlife departments routinely pick up and warehouse tusks from animals that have died naturally. CITES has approved two carefully managed one-off sales in the past, the most recent last October or November, through which four African countries were allowed to sell 100 tons of legitimate ivory. They got $15 million and are willing to put the proceeds back into elephant conservation."

Although animal rights activists argue that such sales encourage poaching, Mr. Walker said statistics do not support that contention. "CITES says it will monitor the situation closely to see if there is any increase in poaching," he said. "It acknowledged that we have to let these countries have some benefit for having elephants around.

"Conservation of elephants is a very emotional issue because we recognize how intelligent they are, what complex social structures they form, how they care for their young," Mr. Walker continued, "but the goal has to be to do well by the species. The next chapter is wrestling with these very difficult questions."
In his book, Mr. Walker takes a close look at how ivory has driven the exploration and exploitation of Africa over the millennia. Ivory has been cherished by human populations from earliest times. Tiny carvings, worn smooth by constant handling, survive from 30,000 years ago, he discovered.

Mr. Walker terms the feel of ivory "seductive' and says it is easily carved in minute detail. It was coveted by cultures that had no animals, such as mammoths and elephants, that provided large amounts of ivory. "Ivory is nothing more than dentine found in teeth," said Mr. Walker said. "Everyone has ivory in their mouth, but elephants and mammoths have it in huge quantities. It is truly an attractive, seductive material."
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, about 44,000 elephants were killed each year for ivory. Much of that ivory came to the United States to Ivoryton, Conn., where it was transformed into piano keys. During those same years, the U.S. produced some 350,000 pianos each year, even more than Germany. Demand for ivory began to fall off in the 1940s when other materials were developed for piano keys.

Mr. Walker said he was able to examine the diary of E.D. Moore, who bought ivory from Zanzibar for the Ivoryton operations. "At one point, Connecticut was a driving force in the worldwide demand for ivory," Mr. Walker said.

Now, thanks to an international treaty, ivory can no longer be sold across borders. "There is some confusion," Mr. Walker reported. "It is not against the law to own ivory; you just can't sell it across borders." He gestured to his Steinway piano, made in the 1930s. "I could not take that into Canada, although there are some instances, where an item is a genuine antique [certified to be more than 100 years old], where you can transport it."

He said possible commerce in legitimate modern ivory would require some form of verification to prove that the ivory had not been poached, possibly through DNA typing.

Mr. Walker is now promoting "Ivory's Ghosts" and will appear Jan. 10 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the House of Books in Kent, where he will discuss his book and sign copies. Copies are currently available at the store.

©Litchfield County Times 2008