John Frederick Walker

Oldest Prehistoric Ivory Venus Figure

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on May 15, 2009

In Ivory’s Ghosts, I described how archaeologists at the University of Tübingen found the oldest known carving in a cave in SW Germany in 2007—a mottled, inch-high 35,000 year-old figure of a mammoth, shaped from that species’ ivory. The mammoth, of course, is the ancestor of the modern elephant.

Today it was announced that a nearby cave held another surprise: a small ivory carving of a woman of similar antiquity, which would make it the oldest of the so-called “Venus” figures, those famously bulbous Ice Age female forms. Many were amulets, likely worn around the neck, and held close to the flesh. The especially fleshy example uncovered, with its enormous breasts and exaggerated genitals, is a striking example, and from a period not previously known for human female imagery.

The Venus of Hohle Fels. Foto: H. Jensen. Copyright: Universität Tübingen

The Venus of Hohle Fels. Foto: H. Jensen. Copyright: Universität Tübingen

Were these “Venus” figures magical objects, teaching tools, sex toys or….? I discuss some of the possibilities in the book, and concede that we may never know what they meant to early humans. But we do know, as I explain, quite a bit about the importance of ivory in prehistory. Mammoths weren’t hunted for their ivory—it was a by-product of the never-ending hunt for food.

But it didn’t take long to discover ivory was an amazing material for sculpture. It’s not as hard as rock, doesn’t split like bone or wood; it has no discernable grain but a perfectly latticed cellular structure, allowing superb detail to be carved, and—this helps explain ivory’s allure through the ages—a wondrous, silky, milky surface when polished that’s very seductive to the eye and the touch.

Ivory’s Ghosts reviewed in Natural History

Posted in elephant and ivory news, ivory news by JFW on April 6, 2009

Laurence Marschall has a review of Ivory’s Ghosts in the April, 2009 issue of Natural History, calling it “a sensitive and insightful analysis.” He goes on to say that “Walker sees the future of elephants not in an absolute ban on all ivory, but in a system of sustainable harvesting and wildlife management. It’s a difficult balancing act, but ivory, he proposes, can transcend its bloody past ‘long stained with the slaughter of elephant herds and human misery’ to become a self-renewing resource which can fund national parks, stabilize local economies, and preserve the creatures that make it.”

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?

Questions I’m Asked About Elephants and Ivory

Posted in ivory news by JFW on March 2, 2009

On my national book tour, I’m finding audiences are keen to hear about the impact of ivory on elephants in history, and eager to know what role ivory might play in future elephant conservation strategies.

That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some controversy.

Frequently, I’ve been asked about a number of contentious issues in elephant conservation. Will Kruger National Park in South Africa really have to start culling their swelling herds? Why aren’t there more effective ways to prevent human-elephant conflict in areas of shrinking habitat? And above all, why did CITES, the 173-nation convention on international trade in endangered species products, allow 100 tons of ivory from southern Africa to be sold last year—when elephants elsewhere are still being poached for their ivory?

I give them the best answers I can, based on the research I did for Ivory’s Ghosts.

And I remind audiences that I’m not there to tell them exactly what to think about elephants and ivory. I’m really there to encourage them to start to think about the complex problems and new challenges now facing African elephants that I’ve detailed in my book. And finally, to understand that the desire for ivory, for so long the elephants’ curse, just might, in the 21st century, be able to help rather than hurt these magnificent creatures.

How? Although elephants have been routinely slaughtered for the their ivory throughout human history, you don’t actually have to kill elephants to get their ivory.

Some people seem taken aback when I say this, and think that I’m going to suggest that elephant tusks could be somehow painlessly extracted—after all, they are teeth—or perhaps cut off to literally stump poachers. I explain that such extravagant measures aren’t needed to obtain guilt-free ivory. One just has to have patience: elephants, like all other creatures, eventually die.

Yes, I know, behind every tusk is a dead elephant, but consider this: just because an elephant is dead, doesn’t mean it was shot. It may have simply keeled over.

In the past, a portion of the ivory that found its way into the trade was “found” or “pick-up” ivory—recovered from carcasses encountered by chance in the bush. But it was chancy and unreliable as a source, and the global ivory trade instead relied on the ruthless pursuit and extermination of herds.

But today, tons of tusks are routinely recovered from elephants that die of natural causes, and stockpiled in the warehouses of wildlife departments and park services in dozens of African countries, creating a new and different kind of ivory problem: what should be done with these stockpiles of this perfectly legitimate ivory?

Cash-strapped African nations are not about to destroy their stocks of this valuable “white gold”—particularly when no elephants were harmed in collecting it.

Elephant conservation is expensive. From equipping park rangers to purchasing land to create wildlife corridors, from building fences to conducting research, it all takes money.

That’s why in October of 2008, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, which have well-managed, flourishing elephant populations, were able to sell, under CITES supervision, over 100 tons of tusks recovered from elephants that died of natural causes. The sale raised $15 million, all of it earmarked for elephant conservation.

Many elephant advocates claim that these kinds of legal sales just encourage poaching.

But according to TRAFFIC, the joint World Wildlife Fund / IUCN wildlife trade monitoring network, which has studied the issue for years, there’s no solid evidence that such sales lead to more poaching or increased illegal trade in ivory.

That’s the heart of the matter—and that’s why it’s so important to get ivory policy right.

Think about it. If there weren’t poaching, would there be any reason to object to sales of ivory from elephants that die of natural causes, with the proceeds going toward elephant conservation? And if poaching is likely to persist, whether or not there are ivory sales, then what’s wrong with raising money this way for elephant conservation—including anti-poaching efforts?

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JFW on book tour, Part II

Posted in ivory news by JFW on February 10, 2009

I gave a lecture on Ivory’s Ghosts at the Field Museum in Chicago on February 7, and will return to the Chicago area next week to start off the second leg of my national book tour:

February 16, 2009, 4 pm
Program of African Studies
Northwestern University
620 Library Place

February 18, 2009, 7 pm
San Diego Zoo
2920 Zoo Drive

February 19, 2009, 2 pm & 7 pm
California Academy of Sciences
Golden Gate Park

March 6, 2009, 11:30 am
Antioch University New England
40 Avon Street

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“Ivory Project Promoted Across the U.S.”

Posted in ivory news by JFW on February 10, 2009

The African Wildlife Foundation’s website has an article on Ivory’s Ghosts and my upcoming lecture appearances. “With support from AWF,” the piece points out, “Walker investigated museum archives in the US and UK, and traveled from Kruger National Park in South Africa to Laikipia in northern Kenya to interview elephant scientists and ivory experts, landowners and local people.”

JFW interview in Boston Globe

Posted in ivory news by JFW on February 10, 2009

Anna Mundow, correspondent for the Irish Times, calls Ivory’s Ghosts “lively and erudite. ” Her interview with me for the Boston Globe appeared on February 8, 2009.

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Billy the Elephant Gets a New Home, New Role

Posted in ivory news by JFW on February 6, 2009

Before my January 24th talk at the Los Angeles Zoo, I was privileged to be given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Pachyderm Forest, the elaborate new environment being built to eventually house Billy, the Zoo’s Asian elephant, and others of his kind that will be brought in to join him.  And of course, I got to see how Billy was doing.

No matter how many times one sees an elephant—and I’ve seen plenty in the wild—the sight of their vast bulk, wrapped in the rumpled hide that seems to embody every mark of time, making them seem marvelously old, observant and patient, always evokes a sense of awe.  Billy’s majestic, silent strides drew oohs and aahs from the zoo goers, who, like me, pushed up against the railing of his current enclosure for a better look.

The Los Angeles City Council’s decision four days later to allow construction to continue on the controversial, $42-million dollar Asian elephant habitat was the right one.

Opponents, who for months had rallied to shut down the project and send Billy away out of overblown concern for his welfare, were doubtless well-intentioned. But their attitudes and arguments amounted to misplaced animal advocacy that was oblivious to the need to educate the public.

Billy’s not a pet. He’s the ambassador of an endangered species.

There are less than 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild, scattered across divided and shrinking habitats that put these animals in constant conflict with ever-growing rural populations that encroach on elephant territory, turning the pachyderms into crop-raiding nuisances. These animals need our respect and sympathy for their fragile future.  Above all, they need public support for effective conservation policies.

Sure, Billy will still be confined, although soon enough he’ll be housed in a far more spacious and stimulating environment, complete with trees, waterfalls, and mud holes.  He’ll have female companionship and will be able to breed, something he wouldn’t be able to do if he had been shipped off to lonely exile in a sanctuary.

There, he would be out of sight—and the plight of Asian elephants out of mind to zoo goers.

I’ve spent the last five years researching the relationship between humans and elephants for my book, Ivory’s Ghosts. Nothing in that story is more fundamental than the deep shift in thinking that turned elephants from bearers of treasure to creatures we find far more important than anything that can be carved from their tusks.

That shift has been reflected in constantly evolving zoo policies world-wide:  elephants are no longer on view simply to entertain us.  They are there to awaken our wonder at those we share the planet with, which is why zoos are continually upgrading all their animal exhibits to better reflect natural environments and underscore the place of wildlife in ecosystems.

A trip to the zoo is often the only chance an urban population has to experience the fascinations of the animal world first-hand.  It’s where most city schoolchildren begin to appreciate nature and respect for the environment.  And today, zoos also function as “land arks,” doing valuable research and conducting breeding programs for endangered species, such as the Asian elephant.  Billy will now get to pass on his genes.

The sight of Billy striding quietly through the Pachyderm Forest or sinking into a deep pool to give himself a shower with his trunk, will do more to encourage respect for elephants and support for elephant conservation than sending him to a sanctuary could have ever accomplished.

JFW on National Public Radio

Posted in ivory news by JFW on February 2, 2009

I was interviewed about Ivory’s Ghosts on the Faith Middleton Show on Connecticut Public Radio. The hour-long show was aired on January 22, 2009.

Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo, also interviewed me for his program, Field Notes, on WVXU. The 13-minute show was aired January 18, 2009.

Houston Museum of Natural Science guest blogpost

Posted in ivory news by JFW on February 2, 2009

I was also invited to contribute a blogpost to the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s “Beyond Bones” blog before my lecture there:

The Writing of Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants

As I prepare for a national lecture tour based on my forthcoming book, Ivory’s Ghosts, I know there’ll be one question I’ll get everywhere I go, including the HMNS on January 20: “why did you decide to write this book?”

In my case, the germ of the idea began with the realization that despite the nearly twenty-year-old ban on international trade in ivory, elephants are still being poached for their tusks. As a journalist and a conservationist, that bothered me. I began to wonder about the connection between the demand for ivory in history and its impact on the animal that has always been its greatest source. Was there something about this troubling, long-standing link that would throw light on the problems of elephant conservation in the 21st century?

Five years ago, I started researching Ivory’s Ghosts in museums and archives in the US and Europe, and then traveled to Africa to investigate elephant issues first hand, interviewing experts from South Africa to Kenya. I learned that ivory has been valued since the Ice Age, when humans carved figurines from the tusks of the woolly mammoth, the ancestor of the modern elephant—35,000 years ago! Even then humans were attracted to ivory’s beauty and scarcity, and its ability to be finely carved.

Throughout history, nearly every culture, from ancient Egypt to the US, used it to make small sculptures, furniture, combs, chessmen, and hundreds of other objects, a list that later included pistol grips, piano keys and billiard balls. By the late 1800s, ivory was the plastic of its age. Demand helped drive the slaughter of elephants, whose tusks were brought to the African coasts on the shoulders of slaves. By the 1980s, organized poaching, often carried out with AK-47s, halved the African elephant population, causing world-wide outrage that led to an international agreement (under CITES, the convention on trade in endangered species) banning cross-border trade in ivory.

But the ivory ban has failed to stop poaching. In Ivory’s Ghosts, I look into the reasons behind that. One is that the long-standing demand for ivory is not likely to disappear, at least anytime soon. The attraction to ivory is simply too ingrained in too many cultures. And poaching, not surprisingly, flourishes in countries that lack adequate enforcement, or are torn apart by war, like the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the absence of a legal market to meet age-old demand, the black market for ivory is flourishing.

Now some conservationists are starting to think what was previously unthinkable: returning to a highly controlled ivory trade, one that’s structured to help, not hurt elephants. After all, as long as there are elephants, there will be ivory.

Today, tusks are routinely recovered from elephants that die of natural causes, and stockpiled in the warehouses of wildlife departments and park services in dozens of African countries. What should be done with all this valuable “white gold?” Cash-strapped African nations are not about to destroy it. Instead, they have twice successfully petitioned CITES to be allowed to sell their legitimate ivory caches to raise funds strictly for elephant conservation. The last time was this past October, when Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa sold over 100 tons of tusks, raising $15 million from CITES-approved buyers (Japan and China), who agreed not to re-export any ivory products.

The reason these countries gained approval for this sale was that they have well-managed elephant populations, and control poaching. In fact, Botswana and South Africa actually have too many elephants for the habitat available to them. Officials in South Africa’s Kruger National Park may even have to resort to culling some of their elephants if they can’t find other ways to keep their fast-growing herds within bounds.

It’s a situation that strikes many elephant lovers as contradictory—it gave me pause at first—but regular, highly controlled, CITES-administered sales might provide a means to support successful elephant conservation, strange as that sounds.

I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned about the fascinating, complex, and often troubling subject of ivory and elephants with the HMNS audience, and hearing their thoughts on the future of elephants.”