John Frederick Walker

Ivory’s Ghosts reviewed in Foreign Affairs magazine

Posted in elephant and ivory news by JFW on April 29, 2009

The May/June Foreign Affairs has a review of Ivory’s Ghosts by Nicolas van de Walle. “Walker’s well-written and informative book tells the story [of] man’s fascination with ivory, from prehistoric amulets to the massive global trade in the nineteenth century and discusses the impact of the international ban on the ivory trade that has been in effect since 1990.” Read the complete review here.

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.”

Ivory’s Ghosts reviewed in Huffington Post, Bloomberg

Posted in elephant and ivory news by JFW on March 30, 2009

Georgianne  Nienaber has an in-depth review of Ivory’s Ghosts on Huffington Post, calling it “a tour de force examination of the history of ivory,” that “reads like a novel. ”  She adds, “Read Ivory’s Ghosts if you have any affinity for the history and future of this magnificent animal that has been sacrificed over the ages for what amounts to the white gold of its teeth.”

In his Bloomberg review, Leon Lazaroff calls Ivory’s Ghosts an “entertaining chronicle…that admirably tells the story of this enchanting substance, while making it clear that ‘as long as there are there are elephants, there will be ivory. Now, surely, it is ivory’s turn to help insure that there will always be elephants.'”

Do Ivory Sales Encourage Elephant Poaching?

Posted in elephant and ivory news by JFW on March 20, 2009

The illegal killings of five elephants so far this year in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park have generated international furor and a spate of outraged reportage. The fact that their remains were found with their tusks hacked out—in a park that was notorious for out-of-control ivory poaching in the 1970s—has given rise to renewed talk of impending doom for the remaining herds in Africa. And, predictably, unprecedented attacks on how the nearly 20-year-old international ivory trade ban is being administered by the Geneva-based CITES Secretariat.

Patrick Omondi, species mangagement coordinator for the Kenya Wildlife Service, is one of a number of conservationists and animal advocates convinced that the recent 60% rise in ivory poaching in his country can be blamed squarely on last year’s legal sale of over 100 tons of ivory from southern Africa.

No one doubts that Omondi cares deeply about elephants. But is he, and those who agree with him, right? Almost certainly not—and that’s bad for elephants.

Here’s the background. The 2008 sale of tusks from Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa was only the second exception to a global ban on cross-border trade in ivory that took effect in 1990. It was conducted under the auspices of CITES, the 173-nation UN-administered convention that governs trade in endangered species, and netted $15.4 million dollars.

Final approval for it came out of the CITES meeting of member states in the Hague two years ago, at which African nations allowed four countries with growing, well-managed herds to profit from their conservation successes in a “one-off” sale—with restrictions.

Only ivory from legitimate sources (natural deaths, problem animals) could be sold, and only to CITES-approved buyers (Japan and China), who agreed not to reexport it. Funds raised had to be used for elephant conservation and no further exports from countries involved in the sale would be permitted for an additional nine years.

But Omondi has been in I-told-you-so mode since the latest incidents in Tsavo. “What we warned would happen is happening,” he told the UK’s Telegraph. “This legal sale has restarted the demand for ivory, and illegal poachers and smugglers are back in business.”

The idea that any legal ivory sales will surely encourage poaching is the mantra of anti-ivory campaigners (and widely repeated in the media), but on examination it just doesn’t stand up. It’s very hard to prove a causal connection between the two, as serious researchers have discovered. TRAFFIC, the joint World Wildlife Fund / IUCN wildlife trade monitoring network, says there’s no hard evidence that these sales will lead to more poaching or increased illegal trade in ivory.

In fact, legal sales may help suppress poaching. CITES expects the recent sale of tusks, at which legitimate ivory averaged $152 per kilogram, to undercut black market ivory, which was said to be going for up to $800 a kilogram in Asia—and it’s those inflated prices that provide the primary incentive for poaching in countries suffering from poverty and corruption.

Legal ivory sales raise much-needed elephant funds. Guarding these magnificent creatures isn’t cheap. There are rangers to hire and arm, fences to repair and build, land to be purchased for wildlife corridors.

Think about it: elephants don’t have to be killed to get their tusks. They leave these spectacular incisors behind when they die, and in many areas these are routinely recovered. That’s why tons of ivory is stockpiled in the warehouses of African parks and wildlife services each year. Cash-strapped African nations aren’t about to destroy stocks of this valuable “white gold”—particularly when no elephants were harmed in collecting it.

The history of ivory makes it clear why demand for this alluring organic material is never going to disappear. It’s been prized for millennia for its seductive, tactile qualities and its ability to be finely carved, and its use is ingrained in numerous cultures around the world.

Ivory needn’t be the elephant’s curse. Tightly controlled exports of legitimate ivory from Africa could be treated as a self-renewing resource that helps fund the effective conservation of the animal that has always been its greatest source.

Obviously, that would require a degree of regulation and enforcement that has so far proved elusive, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth striving for. New approaches to assuring a future for elephants—ones that Africans as well as elephants can live with—are desperately needed.

Last fall’s CITES-supervised ivory sale was a step in that direction, not a step backwards.

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?

Tagged with: , , ,

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:

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

SAN DIEGO, CA
February 18, 2009, 7 pm
San Diego Zoo
2920 Zoo Drive

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

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

Tagged with: , ,

“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.

Tagged with: ,

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.