John Frederick Walker

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?

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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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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.

JFW Science Metropolis interview

Posted in ivory news by JFW on January 28, 2009

Before my Harvard Museum appearance, I was interviewed by Joseph Caputo for the Boston-based blog, Science Metropolis:

The Ivory Trade Lives On

Jan 15

Long before gold and gemstones, humans were drawn to ivory. Europeans and Americans were especially found of the material, considered the plastic of its age. It was used to make everyday objects from combs to piano keys. By the 1980s, elephant poaching reached record levels in East Africa, provoking a worldwide outcry that led to an ivory trade ban still in effect.

But that’s not the end of the story. The ivory trade still resonates today. Journalist and conservationist John Frederick Walker discusses the past and future of the ivory trade in his new book, “Ivory Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants.” He will be speaking at the Harvard Museum of Natural History this Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 2:00 pm.

What kinds of issues does the ivory trade continue to raise? Science Metropolis editor Joseph Caputo asked Walker about his research.

Q: Why are elephants still being killed for their tusks? Who’s buying it?

The ivory ban only governs international trade in ivory. It doesn’t have anything to do with the internal buying, selling, possessing, collecting of ivory within each country. In North America and Europe, there are vast amounts of worked ivory, that is ivory that’s been carved into something. The issue that is disturbing is that some of it might be masquerading as ivory that is pre-ban when actually it’s poached ivory being snuck into the country.

Q: What role does the online auction-site eBay play in the modern ivory story?

EBay, under pressure from animal advocacy groups, decided that the possibility that there might be some objects being sold on eBay coming from poached ivory was enough to convince them to shut down all ivory sales. I’m not so sure that’s going to help reduce poaching or the flow of illegal ivory. It was a very well organized and central site and that it probably could have been monitored for that kind of illegal activity.

Q: Why would officials at Kruger National Park in South Africa need to thin their elephant herds?

That disturbs a lot of people but they’re so used to thinking of elephants being persecuted in most parts of Africa. They don’t understand that in the southern tier of Africa, those countries have been very successful with their elephant conservation. They’ve had such success that they have too many elephants for the habitat that’s available.

In Kruger National Park, which is the size of New Jersey, has a population of over 12,000 elephants. The habitat there can only support about 8,000 unless you’re willing to let the park’s biodiversity deteriorate. Elephants can literally transform their landscape into a desert. They are slowly eating up the park and having a huge impact on the vegetation.

After much outcry and discussion, park officials have decided they cannot take culling off the list of possible management techniques. They will use it as a last resort if there’s no other way to bring their numbers under control. But, it’s almost certain that they’re going to have to do that.

Q. Is there a possible end for the ivory trade?

I do not believe the ivory trade will ever end because as long as there are elephants there’s going to be ivory. You don’t have to kill elephants to get their ivory, you just have to wait for them to die. Their tusks are routinely stockpiled in the warehouses of African parks and reserves. Given its status as a desirable material in human history, many people around the world can’t understand why there’s anything wrong with the ivory that comes from elephants that die of natural causes.”

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