The quest for status is as old as mankind. To be recognized as smart, successful, rich, beautiful, powerful — and the list goes on — is part of our global heritage, and certainly a big part of many economies. Jewelry, art, homes, temples, cars, private planes, clothing, seating arrangements. . .anywhere you go, in any culture you visit, status and the symbols of status speak to what is valued in that culture, at any given time. And it varies from culture to culture, country to country, century to century. Consider the human form. Historically, in poorer societies, being “fat” was a sign of wealth and thus a status symbol. Whereas today in many wealthy societies, the supermodel, stick-thin look is all the rage. Go figure.
Ivory has been a status symbol in many parts of the world for thousands of years. From ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, China and India to today, objects carved from elephant ivory were and are coveted due to their beauty, endurance and sheen. Most fine art museums exhibit magnificent ivory pieces. Today, unfortunately, you can go to almost any “fine arts” market or store and find ivory. Usually, ivory is “marketed” as antique, meaning made before the modern ban on ivory trade. In other places, the merchant may indeed have “modern” ivory pieces made from “legal” ivory. More often than not, however, the ivory has been obtained illegally, through poaching and criminal organizations that smuggle it out of the elephant’s homeland to Asia where it is carved up and then shopped around the world. The money derived from this is not reinvested in the country of origin; rather, it feeds organized crime, drug cartels and now some terrorist organizations.
It’s time to retire ivory as a status symbol. As long as the ivory trade is controlled by underground, illegal activity, no benefit will accrue to the people, wildlife and economies of the elephant sustaining countries. It’s hard to crack organized crime; it’s hard to patrol vast wilderness areas where the animals are, it’s hard to get governments to agree with each other on what to do. But we — the consumer, the marketplace, the people — can reform the view of ivory as a status symbol. Let’s make it not cool. Let’s eliminate the market. Let’s acknowledge that ivory is status only for the elephants on which it is found.