No matter how much ivory Kenya burns or how widely NPR publicizes it, the poaching of elephant will not stop until individuals stop buying ivory and until rich people cede much of their wealth to the poor.
Conservation will not succeed if its implementation is so narrow as to neglect those who it could hurt or destroy.
It’s true that some of the earliest ivory ever used was for purpose not beauty. Its unusual molecular strength keeps it from splintering or breaking even under the most stressful conditions yet it has a “softness” that mutes rapid or forceful contact.
Ivory was plastic, before plastic was invented.
So what was useful for elephants and walruses undoubtedly was useful to early man.
Until seven millennia ago early elephants roamed China nearly as much as they are found in Africa, today. As they disappeared, ivory became a luxury item as much as a component of tools.
The “art of beauty” is often defined by levels of scarcity. Perhaps this contributed to ivory becoming a currency of the rich.
After more than a half century of very global and very public movements to save elephants and restrict ivory sales, even the Chinese are coming round. But demand for ivory, as with demand for old paintings or rare artifacts from Alepo, is not going to abate even as the Chinese public changes its attitudes.
The demand for ivory is global, not just Chinese. So long as there are rich people willing to pay for stolen treasures of the Mideast or blackmarket Picassos, there will be ivory seekers worldwide.
The supply side is equally daunting.
Today’s poaching of elephant is not the corporate business it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Virtually all the elephant killed today are lost to itinerant gangs unsupported by Emirate sheiks with their Sikorski helicopters and private ships.
These gangs risk the enormous hazards of killing an elephant then having to find some scumbag broker because they have no better way of surviving.
They have no jobs, no livelihood and the sustenance their ancestors eked out of their lands is no longer viable. The land is leeched or confiscated or over grazed, and sustenance living can’t provide the capital to be successful in a modern world.
It’s terribly disturbing to me that so many truly well-intentioned conservationists express “feeling sick” when they see a pyre of tusks being burned but are not similarly demonstrative over the destruction of Alepo or systematic reductions in U.S. foreign aid.
You just can’t separate the phenomena. It’s OK to “feel sick” seeing that media picture of burning tusks provided you in your mind also know how sick and neglected the children near that burning pyre actually are.
You must realize that the father and brother and uncle of that little girl care about her, that they care so much about her that they will commit a crime to feed her.
You’ll notice once you affect that understanding that things get more complicated, that your “sickness” isn’t quite what you thought. It’s cure isn’t quite as simple.
Kenya is doing the right thing. They are doing it possibly for duplicitous reasons, that tourism needs a boost, but I also really believe that young, educated Kenyans have seriously embraced conservation. That’s wonderful.
But it just … doesn’t matter.
It won’t stop poaching. Rich people alone can stop poaching. They can stop buying and hoarding ivory, and their wealth alone redistributed can eradicate global poverty.
Otherwise, the wild elephant is doomed.