Mammoth Ivory and the Ivory Carving Industry


I just found out through this article that mammoth tusks are being dug out of the thawing permafrost in the arctic by the thousands. They are sold to the ivory carving industry in China at $1,900 per kilogram. The growing Chinese middle class has a voracious appetite for ivory jewelry. Paleontologists are suggesting that this perfectly legal practice should become illegal to protect the not yet extinct elephant.

There are several statements of fact in this article that I found alarming:

  1. I didn’t know there was such a thing as an “ivory carving industry.” Of course, now that I think about it, it makes sense, but it had never crossed my mind before.
  2. The elephant is doomed. The Chinese are just starting to get wealthy, and there are many of them. The ivory carving industry isn’t going to back off as long as a single tusk remains. The country where reportedly 4,000 people die every day because of air pollution isn’t going to care about regulating its consumption of a commodity that is harvested in another continent on the other side of the globe. As long as there are Chinese with money, elephants will be hunted – more than ever, as they become more rare and therefore more expensive.
  3. Global warming is thawing the permafrost. A few decades ago it was difficult to find any mammoths. Now, it seems, you can go out there with a shovel and dig for tusks and sell them for a fortune. There is a significant movement still in the United States and the rest of the world that is “denying” global warming. They say that just because glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates, and permafrost is melting in the arctic, it does not mean that the warming is man-made. It’s just a natural occurrence, like it has happened many times in history. The fact that it’s been 800,000 years since we had 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, as we do now, is not enough evidence. Since it’s not man-made, why worry about it. Keep burning that oil!

I am at a loss for suggestions on how to save the elephant, other than save some DNA so we can clone them later, along with the mammoth.

Five Elephants Slain in Kenya Yesterday

While the world went abuzz with yesterday with outrage over American dentist James Palmer’s killing of a lion out of a national park, five elephants were slain in Tsavo West National Park in Kenya last night.

Elephants are far more endangered than lions, since ivory sells for as much as $1000 per pound in Asia. I can blame the poachers, but I know that the market, mostly in Asia, provides the incentive. China’s wealth makes this worse. Elephants are facing extinction. The supply of ivory will one day stop dead – when there are no more wild elephants.

That will be a sad day.

Once There Were Billions

Passenger-Pigeon-300x208This week we had a very sad anniversary: Exactly one hundred years ago, on September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon in the world, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Scientists estimate that there were three to five billion passenger pigeons in North America when the Europeans first arrived. It was the most abundant bird on the continent.  More than a quarter of all birds were passenger pigeons.

Relentless hunting by humans was the cause for their demise. Pigeons served as cheap food for slaves and the poor. After a slow decline through the beginning of the 19th century, the collapse became catastrophic between 1870 and 1890. The populations never recovered, and the last pigeon died in 1914.

Pretty much nobody alive today has ever seen this bird.

We are doing the same today to elephants. There are only about 600,000 African elephants and 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants alive today. Already 20% of all elephants are in captivity. It is estimated that there were 1.3 million elephants in the world in 1979. So in 35 years, we have cut the population in half.

Conservationists estimate that in the last three years 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers. This is up sharply from about 20,000 a year only a few years ago.

To put this into perspective:

Poachers are killing about four elephants an hour right now, 24 hours a day, every day, every year.

And it’s all about the ivory. In most parts of the industrialized world, ivory is tightly controlled or even banned now. However, in China, ivory carving is deeply rooted in tradition and massive amounts of ivory are still being consumed for that purpose. Newly rich Chinese love to shower each other with gifts of elaborately carved pieces of ivory.

But even in the United States, we don’t all agree. Obama has recently faced opposition from, believe it or not, the National Rifle Association. If ivory can’t be sold, then guns or rifles with ivory inlays in the handles, could also not be sold. So the NRA opposes the initiative.

The insanity of it all is mind-numbing. If the killing goes on at “only” the current rate, there won’t be any elephants left in 20 years. Like any population, once it is small enough, it can no longer sustain itself and it will collapse. We may be the last generation that can still witness live wild elephants.

Then what are the Chinese going to carve? Then what are we going to inlay into our rifle butts?

Unlike the burning of fossil fuels, which we can’t just stop overnight, we could easily just stop buying ivory. Cold turkey. The killing would stop overnight.

But it doesn’t. And just like there are no more passenger pigeons, there will soon be no more elephants.