Must the Past be Prologue?

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A timeless image — elephants crossing the grasslands, feeding, interacting, doing what they have done for millennia. They (and their distant, now extinct cousins) walked the earth long before the advent of homo sapiens. Some scientists believe that the vast areas they cleared in search of nutrition made it possible for our ancestors to come down from the trees and out of the caves and live in communities — a major advance that made us predators rather than prey.  Safety in numbers, stronger gene pools, development of sophisticated communication and planning skills.  Do we owe our alpha species status to the elephant?  Perhaps.  In any event, we seem to have returned the favor by coveting their ivory. And now we face the possibility that the earth we walk will one day be without elephants.

When facing a crisis, it is often insightful to look back at history to better understand what brought us to this point.  “A Brief History of the Elephant Ivory Trade”  released last week by Earth Touch News Network takes a look at the recent history of the ivory trade.  Featuring Dr. Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect in Kenya, the report covers the dynamics since the 1970s. Well worth viewing.  But what about the longer perspective.  Just when did we get our insatiable appetite for ivory? And how has that appetite impacted the elephant, societies and world trade since then?

In John Frederick Walker’s Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants you can read all about it.  If the past is indeed prologue, then the future for the elephant is not very bright.  Ivory has seduced for thousands of years.  Elephants once ranged across all of Africa and from Syria to China. By 500 BCE, the lust for ivory in Egypt eliminated the African elephant populations along the Nile, and Syria’s Asian elephant herds had been eliminated. The list of cities and dynasties that sought ivory read like a who’s who of the ancient world: Carthage, Athens, Pompeii, Assyria, Babylon, Darius, Caligula, Alexander the Great, the Ptolemys, Julius Caeser. Diocletian fixed ivory prices. Pliny the Elder warned of elephant extinction in 77 CE.  Meanwhile in China, the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) was trading with markets as far away as Rome.  Included in their caravans along the ancient Silk Route were intricately carved ivory objects. Arabs raided the Swahili coast of East Africa throughout the 7th – 14th centuries and included in their bounty slaves and ivory. Then came the era of European colonization. The race for real estate, slaves and ivory ended interior Africa’s relative isolation from the rest of the world.  The arrival of firearms made large-scale harvesting of ivory possible. No need to go on, read the book, and be astonished as to how ingrained the human craving for ivory is in our global society.

Sadly, we are fighting the awful weight of history in the quest to prize life over ivory’s appeal.  Walker in fact does not believe it is possible.  Because of this, he favors limited, legal sales of Africa’s stockpiles to a regulated market.  Watch “A Brief History of the Elephant Ivory Trade” for clear reasons why most experts disagree.  Walker’s book published in 2009; in the six short years since then, elephant populations have plummeted, and the failure of regulated sales is now established.

Once there were more elephants than homo sapiens.  Now, we are 7 billion and growing while the elephant population is perhaps 350,000 and shrinking.  What separates us from our pre-20th Century relatives is the knowledge that the resource is not unlimited. It’s time to reverse course and let the allure of ivory be relegated to the past.  Tick Tock. Tick Tock.