John Frederick Walker

Confusing Elephant Tusks With Tuna Fish

Posted in ivory news by JFW on March 14, 2009

For many elephant advocates, it’s morally suspect to think of elephant conservation in sustainable terms. To them, “sustainability” is a codeword that suggests that the only value elephants have is fundamentally commercial, and that these great creatures have to somehow “pay their way” to earn the right to exist.

I think it’s obvious that an elephant is far more than just a pair of tusks, a huge wrinkled hide, a mountain of meat and a few elephant hair bracelets. It’s a creature of intrinsic worth—and without question, the world would be a far poorer place without elephants.

Still, I don’t think it’s a contradiction to believe that elephants are important in themselves, and yet recognize that they can also have direct monetary value. Few elephant advocates object to the notion that elephants have important touristic value, drawing hordes of camera-carrying, money-paying visitors to those countries that have herds on view.

But when I raise the idea of selling off the ivory that the elephant leaves behind when it dies to raise funds for the creature’s own conservation, someone is sure to wonder if that doesn’t amount to commercializing the elephant—in effect, turning it into a living crop to be harvested.

But elephants aren’t tuna. When fisheries experts warn that the current off-take of tuna stocks isn’t sustainable, they mean that too high a percentage of these remarkable migratory fish are being turned into sushi or packed into little round cans. If this rate of consumption isn’t lowered, they warn us, tuna populations will be depleted, spiral down and crash, perhaps never to recover.

Picking up ivory from elephants that die of natural causes, however, has no effect on elephant populations. Those tusks, which would otherwise dry and crack in the sun or deteriorate in forests, can be sold to raise funds for elephant conservation. (That’s exactly what happened in the CITES-supervised sale last fall of 100 tons of such ivory from southern Africa.)

And it’s a sustainable flow of ivory, simply because as long as there are elephants, they will produce it.

Doesn’t it make sense to take advantage of the commercial value of this guilt-free ivory to help the elephants that provide it?

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