In a fascinating BBC News piece on How an obscure seed is helping to save the elephant, business reporter Kait Bolongaro explains how tagua seed from ivory-nut palms (known as “vegetable ivory”) and tusks from long-extinct mammoths are finding ready markets as substitutes for elephant ivory. I’m quoted on ethically-sourced mammoth ivory from the Siberian tundra, which varies from hard, almost petrified examples, to remarkably well-preserved tusks.
“John Frederick Walker, an expert on ivory, says: ‘Master carvers tend to prefer elephant ivory because fresh elephant ivory is easier to carve. But in fact, you can make wonderful things from mammoth ivory.’ ”
Both tagua and mammoth ivory are examples of natural, organic materials that share much of the tactile attraction of elephant ivory, but unlike tusks from poached elephants, can be sourced guilt-free: the first is a palm-tree seed, the second from a long-expired ancestor of today’s elephant.
I was recently interviewed on Radio Luxembourg by Mohamed Hamdi for an episode centered on the ivory trade. The entire program is here, presented in Luxembourgish. My responses included the following:
“I’m basically against the trade of animal products from threatened and endangered species, but with some exceptions. It’s important to distinguish between wildlife products that require the death of the animal and those that don’t. And you don’t have to kill elephants to get their tusks. Eventually, like all creatures, they die and leave behind their tusks. Something like 15 to 20 tons a year of this natural mortality ivory is recovered in the bush and warehoused in African national park systems. As long as there are these animals, there’s going to be ivory. The argument for allowing a highly regulated and transparent trade in legal ivory is that it creates a socially acceptable outlet for legitimate interest and no-harm-to-elephants ivory. All other ivory commerce by contrast would be unacceptable, illicit, criminal, rightly condemned on the grounds that it threatens elephants. I think that the very existence of historic carvings and legal ivory of this nature means that a complete prohibition of ivory commerce is never going to be universally accepted. Total prohibition is just going to drive demand under ground where it can only be supplied by organized crime….”
I was interviewed on CCTV-America last night on the ivory trade in a debate with Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA. As always, not enough time to make a number of key points, but was able to discuss some critical issues. The 8-minute exchange is here.
On April 30, 2016, Kenya will incinerate 105 metric tons of ivory—5% of global stocks— to “send a message.” Does this make sense? Or is it a “self-delusional publicity stunt,” as Mike Norton-Griffiths and Daniel Stiles wrote in the Times of London today, one that could cause a spike in ivory prices, and stimulate more poaching?
Louise Osborne’s piece, “To burn or sell ivory: Which can put an end to elephant poaching?” also appeared today in Deutsche Welle. She surveys current pro-burn conservation opinion on the planned destruction and also includes my take on the matter:
“John Frederick Walker, who has written widely on the trade of ivory, says ivory has been valued since prehistoric times and is not simply a ‘passing fad.’
‘The earliest carvings humans ever made were from the ivory of woolly mammoth,’ Walker told DW. ‘The attraction to ivory is embedded in world culture, from ancient Egypt to Europe to the far East. It’s a fantasy to think demand is ever going to disappear entirely,’ Walker said.
Instead, Walker advocates a highly restricted, controlled legal trade in naturally occurring ivory. This would work through use of techniques such as radiocarbon dating, micro-chipping and databases to keep track of the industry….”
Unfortunately, such arguments for harnessing demand through managing trade in legal ivory are increasingly viewed as fringe opinions. That leaves only ivory stockpile destruction and ivory prohibition as strategy options, neither of which is likely to reduce elephant poaching.
What if we’re wrong about how best to save elephants from being killed for their ivory? In an opinion piece for Earth Island Journal, I argue that a controlled, legal trade is more likely to slow elephant poaching than the outright ban of all ivory trade now widely advocated. The article is here.
On April 9th, I joined Craig Hoover, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Susan Lieberman, Federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, and Anna Frostic, Humane Society of the U.S., on an American Society of International Law panel in Washington, DC organized by Rachelle Adam of Hebrew University. The subject? “Can International Law Help Prevent the Rapid Disappearance of Wildlife?” The entire panel can be seen on YouTube. My presentation starts at 17 minutes in, and runs for 13 minutes.
“In a Yale Environment 360 debate, author John Frederick Walker and conservationist Mary Rice offer opposing views on whether the global ban on ivory trading should be eased. Walker argues that a partial lifting of the ban would reduce demand for illicit ivory, while Rice insists such a move would only accelerate the slaughter of Africa’s elephants.” Read the entire debate here.
My most recent piece on the poaching crisis, “How China Could Decide the Future of Africa’s Elephants,” argues for regulated legal ivory trade as a means to engage with China in the elimination of trafficking in tusks. It’s just been posted on the National Geographic News Watch blog, A Voice for Elephants. Here’s the link.
My latest article, “Rethinking Ivory,” appears in the Summer 2013 issue of World Policy Journal, and is now available online. It challenges the conventional wisdom on the ivory trade and argues that a well-regulated commerce in tusks could offer a realistic way forward for elephant conservation.
Elephant poaching has been much discussed recently in global media, and at the just-concluding CITES conference in Bangkok, for good reason — elephant killings are at an alarming high.
I was interviewed by Chris Cummins on Austrian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio station FM4, which has an English language news magazine program called “Reality Check.” The piece is “The Ivory Wars,” and I’m included in the 15 minute podcast (starting at 12:30 minutes into it), and also in the story that accompanied it. Click here for the podcast/story, which covers the crisis, and what might be done to address it.