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Ivory Trade by Joyanna Laughlin


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Ivory-980 While experts disagree on whether international ivory sales may benefit elephant conservation, they agree that museums can help educate the public about this issue. From wooly mammoths and the Hindu god Ganesha to the Disney cartoon “Dumbo” and a stuffed toy from a wildlife conservation organization on your child’s or grandchild’s bed, as long as humans have been aware of elephants, we have been awestruck by these gentle giants. “There is hardly a continent on Earth that hasn’t been fascinated with elephant ivory,” says renowned author and journalist John Frederick Walker, who has spent the last five years researching the history of ivory for his forthcoming book, “Ivory” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008). “Elephant ivory is not only the most valuable organic substance in human history, it helped shape that history by driving the exploration and exploitation of Africa and was linked with the slave trade.” Museums in the United States and around the world hold evidence of this in THE MUSEUM’S ROLE IN ELEPHANT CONSERVATION Ivory Trade their collections – from elephant ivory netsukes and beautiful pieces inlaid with ivory to carved tusks to full specimens of African and Asian elephants. Because the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned international trade in African and Asian elephant ivory in 1989 and museum stores don’t sell banned ivory products, it may seem that everything that can be done is being done. But, is that really true, and can museums and museum stores be part of a bigger solution to help elephant conservation and reduce poaching? Ivory sales approved Recent headlines seem to send mixed signals. In June 2007, CITES met in The Hague, Netherlands, and announced at the beginning of its conference that it approved a one-time sale of 60 tons of elephant ivory from three African countries to Japan. CITES approved Japan as the buyer after determining that Japan had established strong domestic trade control systems to prevent illegal ivory from getting into the country and will not re-export any ivory products. By the end of the conference, ministers from the African elephant range countries — some of whom went to CITES in favor of legal ivory sales and some against — hammered out a compromise that lets each of four African countries have a onetime sale of their accumulated ivory stocks on top of the 60 tons already approved. After these sales have concluded, the CITES conference agreed to a nine-year moratorium on any international trade in ivory. Also at the conference, it was announced that the online auction house eBay agreed to ban international trade of ivory on its Web sites after an International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) survey found that nine out of 10 ivory items sold on eBay sites were probably illegal. And the United States now has more worked ivory for sale than anywhere in the world, except for Hong Kong. Esmond Martin, Ph.D., author of a Care for the Wild International report released at CITES, found more than 23,000 ivory items in a survey of 15 U.S. cities, and in some cities, half the items were illegally imported and bore the hallmarks of production in China, he told the Washington Post. To sell or not to sell If there is so much illegal ivory being sold, why sell any legal ivory at all? Doesn’t a legal ivory sale increase poaching? Peter Pueschel, wildlife trade program manager at IFAW, thinks so. Pueschel believes any legal sale of ivory sends the wrong message to poachers and consumers that the ivory trade is open again. “Every time the reopening of the ivory trade is discussed, we’ve seen poaching increase in African countries,” Pueschel says. Why? “As soon as you buy ivory from someone, there is the incentive to have more ivory to sell. The cheapest source is the black market and that means poaching elephants.” And yet, there are many facets to this complex issue. The legal, 60- ton sale from Botswana (20 tons), Namibia (10 tons) and South Africa (30 tons) consists of ivory gathered from elephants that have died from natural causes or from problem animal control. Zimbabwe is the fourth country included in the second sale agreement. None of these sales can include seized ivory from poachers or illegal shipments or any ivory of unknown origin, and the money from each sale is to be used for elephant conservation efforts within the selling countries. “One of the reasons the CITES decision allows a limited, tightly controlled trade in ivory is to allow countries doing a good job managing their elephant populations to benefit by selling the ivory that accumulates and put the money to use for conservation,” Walker says. “And it’s the first time African elephant range states worked together and developed a regional compromise to address two important issues: continuing poaching, especially in countries with wars, civil conflicts and breakdowns in civil order; and the interests of more stable countries with wellmanaged elephant populations that want to derive some conservation benefit for their elephants from that management.” Finding ways to support elephant conservation and discourage elephant poaching is only going to get more challenging as populations expand and people need more elephant habitat to grow food for their families. “For people in the West interested in elephant conservation, the real challenge is to help African countries balance their human needs with their wildlife heritage and devise ways for these to coexist,” Walker says. Wars and ethnic tensions plague some African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, creating conditions for poaching to flourish. Kenya, which lost 85 percent of its elephant population to poaching between 1970 and 1985, has approximately 30,000 elephants today, according to Pueschel. And, while that population is now well protected and growing, Kenya may not be a safe haven for elephants indefinitely. It’s becoming known for disturbing violence in the forms of gender and ethnicbased discrimination, human trafficking and clan warfare spilling over from neighboring Somalia, says Erica Chenoweth, Ph.D., a research fellow at Harvard specializing in terrorism and international security issues, particularly democratization processes. “Quasi-political gangs and death squads exert authority over some Nairobi neighborhoods, and al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists are known to exist throughout the country,” Chenoweth says. What museums can do While it may not be practical to bring wild herds of elephants from Africa to roam across America’s dwindling open spaces, U.S. museums can play an important role in elephant conservation. No longer just custodians of our history, museums are becoming active educators of future generations. “We are thinking and behaving more like an educational institution and less like a cultural attraction,” says Anne Conable, director of museum experience at the Buffalo Museum of Science in Buffalo, NY. And what better place than a museum to educate people about the ivory trade: the fact that it still exists, how it works, its cultural, economic and environmental exploitation throughout history, and why, when someone in the United States buys a cute pair of supposedly “pre ban” ivory earrings on eBay, the poaching of elephants can increase in Africa. Pueschel and Walker agree that one way museums can educate their audiences about elephant conservation is by having exhibits on the ivory trade. Pueschel suggests that museums obtain ivory seized in illegal shipments and display it with information about how buying ivory increases poaching. “In the 21st century the ivory trade belongs in the museums,” he says, not in practice in modern life. Walker is developing an exhibit based on his book that would travel to museums around the country to show ivory’s impact on human history and elephant populations from the Ice Age to the present day. In addition, museum stores could sell products based on ivory made from nonivory materials and items that benefit elephants (see sidebar). As economic, environmental and political pressures mount worldwide, and elephants and other wild creatures continue to follow their ancient migratory patterns that have nothing to do with countries, borders, wars and politics, it’s more important than ever for us to care for our wildlife heritage because our futures, and the planet’s future, are intertwined – lest we all end up as specimens in a museum with no one left to visit it. Joyanna Laughlin is an experienced writer, editor and poet who specializes in healthy lifestyles and sustainability topics and has a passion for making a difference in the world. She lives in Colorado with her golden retriever, Rocket.

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