Friday, October 19, 2012

Ivory As Art and Icon Through the Ages

When I wrote about elephant poaching in my blog of Oct 2nd my timing was either terrible or fantastic. Less than two weeks later our copy of the iconic National Geographic Magazine arrived and there, splashed across the front cover is the headline Blood Ivory: 25,000 ELEPHANTS WERE KILLED LAST YEAR. I cannot show the cover, but I did find a version of it on line

The article, by Bryan Christy, with photos by Brent Stirton, takes a really up-to-date and deeply probing look at the end users, with lots of information that was new to me. Christy’s account is of events in recent times, but the back history is just as fascinating and it is this side of the story that I am trying to highlight here. I’ll also offer a brief précis of the National Geographic piece, for those who have not seen it, but the story runs to 30 pages and I will not even try in 30 paragraphs. There are several new URL pages about this story, which has garnered quite a lot of reaction. You can find somne of that at Christy's blog.

            It would be naïve to suggest that the human desire to acquire beautiful things is something new, or that it never took place on a large scale. Witness the recent discovery of ancient trading records from the Egyptian city of Alexandria. One ship alone in the Third Century BC carried 100 tonnes of elephant tusks in a single voyage. Acquiring so much stuff must have been a massive undertaking. We will never know how much of the ivory was “found” from carcasses. In this context found carcasses are those of animals that have died a “natural” death.

The first text I read that really looked at this part of the trade was Ian Parker’s and Mohamed Amin’s Ivory Crisis (Chatto and Windus 1983).

In terms of the consumption end of the equation, Parker suggested that a reverence for ivory crosses all human cultures and times. In his chapter titled A Long White Trail he quoted from a wide variety of sources from many corners of the world. The oldest record that Parker found was the use of small figurines, possibly fertility goddesses, that date back about 40,000 years.

There are several references to the erotic nature of ivory in the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon For instance

"Your neck is as beautiful as an ivory tower."

Throughout time several thrones (including Solomon’s) have been made of ivory, or ivory and gold inlay. 

Author and ivory trader Ernst More wrote Ivory: Scourge of Africa in 1931. In a lengthy piece about thrones he wrote: …"we should include the ivory chair, inlaid with gold, or Suleiman the Magnificent, in which he sat while, on the feast of Bairam, all the harem women came to kiss the unspeakable Turkish foot."

John Petherick, the 19th century explorer who preceded Burton and Speke in the Sudan and on the Nile met tribesmen who used who used ivory bracelets and necklaces and many other African tribes enjoyed its special lustre in similar ways. The Baganda, in what is now Uganda, even used small ivory disks as currency.

The apogee of all this consumption, at least until modern times of which Brian Christy reports, must surely be during Roman times. The seats in the senate were made of ivory, and if that was not enough Emperor Caligula built a whole stable from the stuff for his horse. Another account has it that the stable was made of marble, but had an ivory manger. I wonder if this was Caligula’s favourite, named Incitatus, which, according to some historians, was attended by servants and fed oats mixed with gold flake. It seems quite possible as he was emperor for only four years before being assassinated.

It does seem that the massive killing of the elephants of North Africa, the kind that Hannibal took across the Alps, may have been the principal cause of their extermination.

There are many other examples that Parker gave, but these give a taste.
By the early 20th century extra sets of uses had appeared in Western culture. Billiard balls and piano keys were made of ivory. Not any more, but you can find websites that advertise antique billiard balls. Caveat emptor, plastic can be made to look very like the real thing.   

Much ivory is worked into exquisite pieces of unimaginable complexity. One that has intrigued me is the ivory ball shown here. In the top segment there are twelve balls carved inside one another. There are no splits of creases in the work. Each ball is carved in turn, from the outside, and each one rotates independently. If the outer one that one can clearly see is delicate and amazing, having taken hours, probably days, to carve, how difficult was it for the incredibly skilled craftsman to work the innermost, and what sort of highly specialized instrument was used? The bottom ball had only six layers.

I found this image from the National Museum of Taiwan. The close-up of the ball shows some of the 21 layers that a real artisan had created.

Carver at work. Douala, 1997
When I did some volunteer work for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Cameroon in the 1990s I visited the ivory trading centre in Doula, the commercial capital of the country. There were several carvers toiling way, but the standard of workmanship did not even approach those balls on their tower.

Ivory pieces and wood carvings in the Douala market

 The biggest surprise, for me, is the widespread used of and reverence for ivory among Roman Catholics in the Philippines. Christy quotes one collector who stated that “I don’t see the elephant, I see the Lord.” One of Stirton’s photos shows a man sitting among an extraordinary collection of ivory statues and elaborate carvings that must be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.   

One of the most amazing pieces is a carving of Christ on the cross, which hangs in a museum in Manila. His body, carved from a single tusk, is 30 inches long. You can see a small reproduction of this photo in this article.

Some of the vigorous reactions to this story appear here in Church reaction to art or in "Philippines officials react & may go after“blood ivory” holders." 

Another of Stirton’s photos shows a worker in China’s largest ivory-carving factory working on single tusk that has been turned into a cornucopia of leaves, berries and goodness knows what else. How long it took to create is impossible for me to even guess, but there is not doubt that the craftsmanship is extraordinary. It is a pity that I cannot show it here, but maybe you will have to find the story somewhere.

During his two year investigation Christy met a wealthy 42-year-old man named Gary Zeng in China. When the author asked why young entrepreneurs like him are buying ivory the conservation went:
“Value,” he replies. “And art.”
‘Do you think about the elephant?” I ask.
“Not at all,” he says.

I could go on, but I hope that this is enough to give you a small taste of the situation. If the Roman greed for ivory really did lead to the disappearance of elephants from North Africa, are we heading to a wider extirpation driven by Chinese, Philippine and other consumers who know the beauty of ivory but would rather see it in a statue than growing on the original owner?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Elephant Poaching in Africa

Two nasty stories about the current wave of elephant slaughter in Africa. They came a day apart and I’ll take them in chronological order. The first was a report in the Wildlife News blog by Kevin Heath of Sept 27 2012. He wrote about a new and horrifying technique in Mozambique where poachers were caught using anti-tank mines.

Heath also wrote "In June a gang of poachers including Zimbabweans had been caught using poison pills to kill the regions elephants for the ivory."

I have seen the results of land mine use on elephants in Sri Lanka. These injuries were almost certainly the result of accidental triggering of the huge number of munitions used in the long-running battle between the Tamil Tigers and the government.

On our trip to Sri Lanka two years we visited the Pinnawala elephant sanctuaryWe watched a group of elephants cross the highway to bathe. 

If you look carefully you can see that the very last one in the line has a severely humped back. 

This picture, grabbed on line, is of that same animal as she struggles to get to the water. You can see why her back is so humped—she has had to transfer much of her weight to the rear in order to be able to stand. She is one of dozens of land mine elephant victims in the country.

If that can happen with a land mine, how much worse would an anti-tank mine be?

On a prettier and more cheerful note you you can see a large group of Indian elephants bathing in the river. The single cow joined them and appeared to be having a good time. Her mahouts were particualty loving and caring.

Next day, Sept 28, came a report from J. Michael Fay in the National Geographic news watch page titled (Elephant Guards Murdered in Chad)

I’ll quote direct from his post, as it is both chilling and self-explanatory.

Chad: September 2012. Zakaria Ibrahim, Brahim Khamis, Daoud Aldjouma, Djibrine Adoum Goudja, and Idriss Adoum—all dead, gunned down during dawn prayers. Where? North of Zakouma National Park in Chad, central Africa. When? September 3, 2012. Why? They were assassinated for protecting the last of the elephant herds found in the vast stretches between the Sahara Desert and the Congo forest.

When Fay first worked on surveys in Zakouma National Park seven years ago there were 3,885 elephants. A year later 800 or so of them had vanished. That was nothing. As he writes “In 2009 the number was down to 617. Today there are 457 elephants in Zakouma.”

In Fay’s post there is a simple link to his earlier story. All you have to do is click on the well-known National Geographic cover image to get his story titled Ivory Wars 

There are ivory poaching stories coming out of several other African countries. Among them are Kenya, Tanzania and the more western forest countries like the DRC, Gabon and Cameroon. As I have written before, in some cases it has been the meat that was the main target, but there is no doubt that ivory still plays a huge role.

Several people have argued that we need to get at the end point of the poaching, the consumers, and there is plenty of evidence that a huge proportion of this demand comes from China. It is not just ivory. In a country with an alleged 95 billionaires and over a million millionaires, along with a long history of the consumption of wildlife, why should we be able to stop their cultural norms? Think tiger farms, think shark’s fin soup, think hardwoods, and so on, almost ad infinitum.

Fay writes that a friend of his said  In China if you somehow managed to convince 99.9 percent of the population not to buy ivory, that 0.1 percent who remain unconvinced represents 1.3 million people still wanting to buy ivory.”

He wrapped his piece with.
“That’s three times more people than there are elephants left in Africa.”