Ivory – What to Do?

The endangered African elephant is surely one of man’s most obvious failures at maintaining biodiversity on this incredible planet. Now, western governments are attempting to show their concern by enacting laws to curtail all ivory sales. As an antiques dealer, I have to say that the new rules come across largely as publicity stunts, not meaningful solutions, incidentally denying the cultural significance of this revered material throughout history.  There is clearly a difference between new ivory and what I will call antique ivory and it should be recognized.

But first, there are so many levels on which this problem needs addressing. The very first is the economic plight of people who would willingly destroy this extraordinary mammal. Clearly, this needs addressing.  If you further break down the effort required to get that ivory to a customer away from Africa, there are numerous points at which the problem can and should be addressed. Could we make it a crime to misrepresent the cargo on a bill of lading, perhaps? Could any ship or plane that loads such material be subject to seizure if found with such contraband—knowingly or not?

The history of every culture on this earth has venerated ivory. It is an extraordinary material that lends itself to carving and engraving. The quantity of cultural artifacts made with ivory and the stories they tell relate to everything we are today. I just finished “The Closing of the Western Mind” and pictured in it is a diptych carved in ivory, half of it now in Paris and the other half in England. The diptych tells a story of humanity and of Christianity. Should we now be destroying or driving underground these artifacts that are a part of us?

Broad sweeping laws designed to appeal to the public’s sense of frustration over something as tragic as the extermination of the elephant are not an answer to the problem. What is needed are specific measures that focus on the why and how of elephant exploitation. In the recent notice from the White House regarding the trade in ivory, there is support for limited hunting of elephants.  Huh? What on earth are they thinking? The credibility of the entire directive, one that I can’t agree with, becomes even more obfuscated by this mixed message. What are we thinking?

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