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The Elephant in the Room

Karen Rile

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Published: July 23, 2014 at 5:39 PM [UTC]


When I was a kid I loved elephants so much I wanted to be one. Long before I had any sense of the political and philosophical controversies surrounding the de Brunhoff books, I was mesmerized by Babar, Celeste, and their triplets, Pom, Flora, and Alexander. I decided that I wanted to be king of the elephants when I grew up. My mom had to explain to me that my career aspirations were problematic on multiple levels.

When I asked for an elephant of my own, she told me that large animals were not allowed in our apartment building, so we would need to stable our elephant at the zoo. My elephant's name was Petal; my mom took me to visit her regularly. That's before I learned that zoo-bound elephants often live lonely, cramped, unhappy lives. (The elephant I believed was mine lived to age 52, and later in her life was the subject of much debate; our local zoo no longer exhibits elephants.)

There's a lot I still don't understand about elephants; as my own insight evolves, I begin to suspect no human truly understands them, though many claim to. In the West we romanticize them: noble beasts; artists; jazz musicians, opera supernumeraries. We're enchanted by their intelligence, their grace, their astonishing multipurpose trunks. Like us, they are communal animals with highly structured societies. We see ourselves in them—and whether that's a mirage or not, who knows?

A couple weeks ago my husband and I traveled to Tanzania to visit a good friend of mine who is there on a Fulbright fellowship. We spent some time in the city of Arusha and then traveled through several national parks on a safari trip. At last, I would be able to see my beloved elephants in their true habitat. I admit I was beyond excited, almost nervous, when we first drove into Tarangire National Park and came face to face with dozens—dozens—of wild elephants calmly grazing near the park entrance. I and the others in our group were overwhelmed almost to tears. (See the photo at the top of this essay. Here are some more photos of that moment.)

And here is my philosophical disconnect. I also love classical music. President Obama's Executive Order forbidding travel with objects containing ivory has been heavy on my mind lately. I can't discover any sense in destroying or devaluing the vast many existing musical instruments and bows made with old ivory. In fact, I passionately believe that the ban on instruments is a terrible mistake. But how do you make sense of a situation that tugs your heart and mind in opposite directions? While I was in Africa, I and another member of our group who is an amateur violinist took the opportunity to converse in person with African wildlife officials and naturalists on the topics conservation, the ivory ban, and its consequences for the music world.

The first thing any Tanzanian will tell you is that elephants are in crisis. In their country alone thirty elephants are killed each day by ivory poachers—that's nearly 11,000 elephants slaughtered per year. Some are shot, then hacked apart; others are poisoned with spiked pumpkins and watermelons, robbed of their tusks, and left to rot. Especially vulnerable are the largest elephants, matriarchs whose loss is devastating to a herd. (Did you know that elephants grow continuously throughout their lives? The older they are, the larger, and the more attractive to poachers.)

These numbers are disastrous. Tanzania's elephant population has shrunk from about 109,000 in 2009 to fewer than 60,000 today. At this rate, elephant herds could disappear entirely from the landscape in less than a decade. We were told repeatedly that the blame lies with greedy marauders profiting from China's insatiable thirst for ivory objects. No doubt, but who greases the wheels of the poaching machine? How exactly does illicit raw ivory exit the country? The problem is systemic; poachers are abetted by widespread internal corruption among government officials and rangers. In other countries, poaching funds are known to fund bloody wars.

Elephant conservation is a big topic in Tanzania. But every time my violinist friend and I brought up our own special interest—the Executive Order's impact on the music industry—we got a blank expression followed by mild bemusement. No one we spoke to had even heard of the issue.

As readers of this forum know, it's not easy to come up with a succinct, easily digestible synopsis to explain why older instruments and bows often contain legal but impossible-to-validate ivory, and why most of these tools cannot simply be discarded or retrofitted to suit the new regulations. It's even more difficult to hold someone's attention when you start to spell out the damage this ban will do by isolating American classical musicians from the rest of the world. This is not surprising; one needs to be invested in a culture before one can care about preserving it. All the long verbiage and arcane explanation is off-putting, and reeks of self-involvement. As for my anxiety about confused, possibly corrupt customs agents and U.S. Fish & Wildlife inspectors making uninformed spot-decisions about musicians' treasured tools—the reaction is predictable. What citizens do of this world do not have to deal with cruel, inconvenient bureaucracy? How is our little problem even special? In light of the life-or-death issues in Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world, my babbling about the difficulties of crossing international borders with ivory bow tips sounded a tad effete.

But everyone was polite. One conservationist, a church-going man, pointed out that the ban is distressful for elderly priests and nuns whose ivory crucifixes have been at their sides their whole career and are suddenly illegal. (Now, there's something I'd never thought about. It's all about context, isn't it?) Although this man had no particular affinity for classical music, he chimed in quickly about the importance of ivory cultural artifacts, and noted that American and European museums are chockablock with the stuff. "It's a viable, precious material; old ivory and even ivory from elephants who die naturally should not be wasted or destroyed."

"This is an African problem, not an problem of the US," said an official, who asked not to be named. Without taking the trouble to understand the complexities of the situation, the US has arrogantly and paternalistically rushed to the rescue, using a "sledgehammer to destroy an ant."

It might behoove me and the rest of us Americans to take a break from our pontificating to consider the problem from the Tanzanian point of view. Tanzanians don't have the luxury of romanticizing elephants from afar as we do. Elephants are destructive and dangerous to farmers and their crops. They damage the savannah by debarking and breaking trees. If not properly managed, the herds can have a negative impact on the ecosystem in conservation areas. Elephants are also a valuable resource, particularly precious in a country poor in mineral deposits. (And before we get all sanctimonious about that idea, consider what our forebears did to the American buffalo.) Lucky for elephants, they attract tourists, and tourism is one of the biggest growth industries in the country. But, the harsh fact remains that an elephant is worth more shilingi dead than alive.

In 2012 the Tanzanian government made a proposal to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to sell some of its ivory stockpiles, claiming that they would use the profits to fund elephant conservation projects. They withdrew the proposal under pressure in early 2013. So: no money exchanged for their legal stockpile of an enormously prized commodity that would have brought millions of dollars of cash to their impoverished country. Meanwhile, the illegal ivory remains as valued as ever, and the black market thrives in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa. 

Where does that leave us in the music community? Does anyone out there really believe that the destruction and banning of instruments, along with the de facto destruction of the American classical music industry, will "save the elephants" when the real danger to elephants rests in the hands of poachers, corrupt officials, and nouveau-riche artifact collectors in China? Are we that self-important?

Do we toss our instruments on the pyre in a gesture of solidarity towards the noble beasts who died generations ago? Or do we move forward and throw energy into the conservation of elephant herds and the conservation of what is arguably the greatest art form Western culture has produced? In good faith, musicians with their—yes, ivory-tipped—bows and their bassoons with ivory bell rings, their antique Martin guitars can perform to help raise awareness and funds for conservation, conservation of wildlife and conservation the music industry.

Posted on July 24, 2014 at 3:41 AM
Banning ivory seems to have the same effect as banning drugs ie. it only drives up the price and creates an illegal trade.
From Brian Kelly
Posted on July 24, 2014 at 3:49 AM
Banning ivory seems to have the same affect as banning drugs and alcohol ie. it drives up the price and creates an illegal trade. I do not see any problem in the controlled sale of ivory. If we eat and use the meat and skins of cattle, sheep and pigs then why are elephants any different ?
From Karen Rile
Posted on July 24, 2014 at 1:48 PM
Hi Brian. Thanks for your comment. One critical difference between elephants and cattle, sheep, and pigs is that elephants are wild animals whose species is endangered (see the numbers in the essay above.) Emphatically I would argue that they should not be hunted.

Because of their size and migratory behavior elephants cannot be domesticated and farmed, even if someone would want to.

But your question as to the use of ivory from elephants who die naturally, or from confiscated stockpiles (such as the Tanzanian government owns and wanted to use) should be addressed.

I should also note that modern bow makers don't use elephant ivory; they use legal ivory from the tusks of extinct mastodons. Unfortunately, this ivory is very difficult to distinguish from elephant ivory, legal or illegal, and puts these bows in jeopardy when examined by inadequately trained customs or Fish and Wildlife inspectors.

Posted on July 24, 2014 at 6:01 PM
It doesn't matter if you have a "modern" bow. The application process and the rules are so badly made, that you could find our modern bow confiscated quite easily. Who knows what kind of training, if any the people who will be inspecting your beloved modern expensive violin bow will have had. They probably can't even whistle a tune, much less understand the delicacies of the violin/bow industry. Imagine you come into the USA with the same bow you left the USA with, but because it was made after 1975 you don't need any documentation. You are stopped and asked to prove that your bow is recent. Can you? Bill of sale written by hand by some small violin shop or the bowmaker? Anyone could have written that. Prove it is recent. Oh, sorry, this is potential contraband. We are confiscating it,n too many doubts surround your bow. How dare you try to bring contraband into the country. That is what you will get.
From Karen Rile
Posted on July 24, 2014 at 11:10 PM
Yes, it's a very serious problem!
Posted on July 26, 2014 at 9:23 PM
More 'administrative law' from our new totalitarian masters in Washington. Once upon a time laws were made by elected officials in Congress. Now they are made by life-time tenured bureaucrats in tune with the current regime's anti- economic, anti-business, and anti-common sense rigid ideology. What were people in the classical music world expecting after the assault on Gibson Guitar? Why, oh why, are people still called 'liberals' who can't and won't do elementary cost-benefit analyses of polices? Whose 'logic' says that a ban on old ivory has something to do with protecting current elephants? And whose first, rather than last, solutions are to 'ban' anything that displeases them? They think they are so Morally Superior, but are just as fanatical as the old Prohibitionists. Well, maybe musicians will wake up and realize that the New Left is not the beginning of some warm and fuzzy 'age d'or,' but rather basically the same as the Old Left. As they used to say in the old Soviet Union: "It is arranged. You will enjoy." There are plenty of solutions to the problem of protectiing elephants -- who I also also very much enjoy, and have ridden, on horseback among, in Kenya. For example, make it attractive for people to Own ranches and Own Elephant herds, and defend them from poachers, then we could have Elephants and even (current) ivory, too. But no, our regime must punish those who deviate... (Sorry for the rant, but I spent too much time among the old totalitarians to have any tolerance for the new ones.)

Posted on July 27, 2014 at 4:56 AM
Its sad that my Violin has got an ivory bridge and the tail piece all made of ivory.I am ashamed to mention this information but...

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