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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Scourge of Africa (Ivory Conclusion)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 17, 2012

The trade eliminated elephants from vast swaths of East Africa.   “People talk as if the ivory of Africa were inexhaustible,” an English explorer wrote in the 1870s.   “Let me simply mention a fact.  In my sojourn of fourteen months, during which I passed over an immense area of the Great Lakes region, I never once saw a single elephant.”   But back in Connecticut, it was easy to believe otherwise.   “Although fifty thousand animals are annually slain to meet the demands throughout the world for ivory,” a newspaper reported, in a profile of Comstock, Cheney & Co., “there appears to be little danger of decimation, owing to the fact that, in the wilds in the backcountry, hundreds of miles from civilization, elephants are as numerous as flies.”

Ernst Moore’s book Ivory—Scourge of Africa was a remarkably frank account of how his business had devastated the continent.  But when he came to “the question of whether or not the killing for ivory must go on…until the elephant is exterminated throughout the whole continent of Africa,” he could only answer with another question:  “Can we find a substitute for ivory that will give us equal grace, delight, and satisfaction?”  Moore thought no such substitute existed, and that the killing would continue.  Even today some pianists insist on ivory, saying sophisticated modern plastics do not meet their needs.

What ultimately saved the remaining elephants wasn’t conservationist thinking.  On the contrary, it was the decline in demand early in the twentieth century as the phonograph, movies, and other modern amusements began to draw people away from their pianos.

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Reading about the old ivory trade in the Connecticut River Valley, the wealthy people in Asia who are now driving the demand for ivory might well think:  “The Americans were even worse in their day.  Now it’s our turn.”  But it’s no longer possible to plead ignorance about the effects of the ivory trade, and the moral complications are all too obvious:  News reports continually show us the butchered elephants, and the game rangers and poachers who have died over their bodies.  And what if the last wild elephants vanish from Africa, as now seems possible?  The children and grandchildren of the people who are making it happen will look back on them in horror and dismay.  That’s the real lesson of the Connecticut River Valley.  Those precious and beautifully-carved ivory knickknacks will survive not as symbols of status, but of shame.

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